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How to talk to children about the war in Ukraine

Mar 13, 2022

Children experience sadness due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We are exposed to images, videos, and stories about people suffering in Europe. Children and adolescents can become worried and frightened when they see innocent people being victims of war. Exposure to explosions, weapons, children crying, images of those seeking refuge, and many other images of the war zone can result in vicarious trauma. Parents and teachers can give children and adolescents a sense of security and protection by helping them to identify their emotions and providing them with the support they need so they can be resilient and overcome all challenges. Here are some tips:

  • Stay calm and tell the children that you are doing everything you can to protect them and to provide a safe environment for them.
  • Children have different emotions based on their own experience. Acknowledge and validate their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events without judging them for what they express.
  • Depending on their age, some children may think that events are personal and will affect them, their family, and their friends. Reassure them by giving factual, developmentally appropriate information using concepts that children understand.
  • Some children are not used to communicating their fears or do not have the appropriate language for their age. Use alternative means of expression such as drawings, toys, or writing stories and poems.
  • Adults model behavior that children adopt. Avoid making negative comments about people and use the opportunity to teach tolerance without prejudice, avoiding stereotyping others because of their race, nationality, or religion. Do not encourage or accept teasing or “bullying” at any time.
  • Adults also may feel fearful, anxious, and worried. Be honest with your own emotions and share how you feel, but don't burden children with your worries. Use the moment to teach children that it is okay to be worried when there is a tragedy of this magnitude. Teach them to verbalize their emotions while sharing empathy and compassion with them.
  • Ensure that you have a reliable source of information. Share the facts and avoid speculation. Adults should not talk about the topic excessively if children are listening, and they should prevent inappropriate exposure, especially in social networks and platforms where the information may not be appropriate for their age or may be manipulated. Avoid sharing information if you do not know if the source is reliable to prevent the spread of misinformation.
  • Keep a normal and predictable routine, but allow flexibility, giving children the opportunity to express themselves and talk about the facts when they need to. Give children time to ask questions and have honest but age-appropriate answers.
  • Children can feel normalcy being at school with their friends and it's okay to let them play if they don't want to talk about events. Parents and teachers can be observant and share information if children express fears at home or at school.
  • Be observant of children’s emotional state and behavior. Sudden changes in sleep, appetite, lack of concentration, being very attached to adults, regressive behaviors (such as thumb sucking), muscle pain, and other psychosomatic manifestations can be signs of an emotional problem. Be especially watchful if children have had a previous traumatic experience or children who have special needs, as they may be more vulnerable.
  • Children who show higher levels of stress about the war should be evaluated by a mental health professional. Contact a school psychologist, school counselor, or community psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents.
  • Some children and adolescents may feel the need to help victims. Adults can supervise volunteer activities, such as drawing pictures or writing letters to those affected, participating in humanitarian events to raise funds, or organizing group activities where they can share their feelings peacefully, feeling that their emotions are validated and that they are part of the solution to the problem they face.
  • Keep your own stress level monitored and get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise. We can all feel anxiety, pain, and anger when we see injustices during a war because we are human beings who care for other humans. Talk to your close relatives, faith leaders, or if necessary, seek professional help. By staying emotionally strong, you will be better able to support children and youth in difficult times.

Wars are difficult to accept because there is human suffering. Most children, adolescents and adults are resilient despite experiencing traumatic moments. As adults we can create a supportive environment for children and adolescents, thus minimizing the long-term effects of direct or indirect trauma. Let's do our best to protect our family’s emotional health while we pray for world peace and a better world.

For more information on how to help children by developmental age and additional resources, visit the National Association of School Psychologists.