Even in homes where attempts are made to protect them, children are hearing about the war in Ukraine. Some overhear their parents’ conversations or phone calls, some hear the news on in the next room, and others engage with friends on the bus, at school and on social media. Here are some basic starting throughts for how we might guide parents and educators on how best to reassure children and address their fears while still being honest.
BOTH FAMILIES AND EDUCATORS CAN ADAPT THESE POINTS FOR CONVERSATIONS WITH YOUTH.
Turn off media coverage! Children don’t have the context adults have, and they don’t have the ability to psychologicall screen what they’re seeing. When they hear distressing news, they’re less able to decide for themselves when to stop listening and take a break. They aren’t old enough to have lived during wars and conflicts around the world, so they don’t have a sense of there being a resolution at some point. They have little or no understanding of the gigantic steps many countries are taking to put pressure on Russia to stop the aggression. Media coverage is most often focused on the pain, suffering and fear-involking images that are now seen in real time. There is a psychological saturation and somewhat morbid fascination that can draw us in until we begin to lose our own equalibrium. It is better to read what you need to know and spend more time connecting with family via activities that provide a psychological break.
Think about the developmental stage of the child. Younger children are often more in need of physical closeness and may want to sleep closer to parents. When young ones are frightened, helping them regain a sense of safety is the first goal. If that means sleeping closer for a few nights, that’s fine. The during the day, talk about what will help them feel comfortable about moving back into their own room. Taking more time with tuck-ins and being more deliberate about bed-time might be helpful for awhile. It isn’t worth having children have nightmares if we can avoid that by taking a few days to help them address this overwhelming new fear/realization that war exists in our world.
Listen more than you speak! Sometimes a child asks a question that is really only at the level of wanting to understand, not having significant fear. If your child brings it up, ask them questions like:
- Oh, tell me what you know about this!
- Help me know more – where did you first hear about this?
- Before we start, could you tell me about other questions you have about this?
These kinds of questions on your part provide the opportunity to begin to sense whether your child is coming from curiosity, concern or fear. Then you can address their concern accordingly.
Give fairly brief answers and ask about more. Often adults say way too much when answering a simple question. We may bring up concerns they didn’t already have. Just reply with a simple, developmentally approrpiate response and ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Did I get what you’re looking for?” and then, “What else are you wondering?”
You don’t have to have all the answers! Kids can appreciate our not always having the answer, but being willing to come back to a question after we’ve had more time to think or maybe to research. “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure about that,” can give you the time to reflect and refine how you respond.
For older youth the challenges are multiplied in many ways. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that social media allows students to put their thoughts out about this to one another without any adults being a part of the conversation. Although they’re older and have perhaps learned about wars in school, it is altogether different when something happens that is current and is dominating the news. Many students on social media are talking about WW III and whether it is worth living.
When these conversations occur outside of adult view, it is easy for tweens and teens to become hopeless and depressed. Often they’re reluctant to talk about that with their parents or other caring adults, so this is a time we need to be checking in with them.
If your tweens and teens haven’t brought it up, some queries you could make to start the conversation could be:
- What are some of the big topics right now on social media? What are kids talking about?
- I’m hearing from adults that lots of kids are talking about what’s happening in Ukraine right now. How much do you know about that?
It is important to spend a little more time with your teens and tweens and engage in both converation about the war and the effects of social media, and to share family time that gives everyone a break.
Instead of telling youth what we want them to hear (i.e., “You know, social media provides the likelihood that, in some cases, kids will be cultivating greater and greater fears among their group.”) it is far more effective to ask the questions that help kids come to those conclusions themselves. (i.e., “Sometimes people talk about fear being contagious, like if you weren’t worried about something until someone else brought it up, and then you start worrying more. How do you notice that fear can spread in social media?”)
Another great way to do this is to make your child the expert and ask about other kids rather than asking them to self-disclose their own fears. That gets the subject on the table with less defensiveness. You might adapt some of these to open a conversation:
- What do you think other kids are thinking about what’s happening in the Ukraine?
- When kids voice fears about what’s happening, what is their greatest concern?
- How much of kids’ conversations about Ukraine are on social media and how much with adults they trust?
- Why do you think it is hard for kids to stop using social media when what’s being said seems really depressing?
- What do you do when someone on social media seems really down about something?
Dealing with Anxiety: Many of us adults are feeling anxiety, and certainly youth may be as well. We have a separate website for parents that has a page filled with resources on helping your child manage anxiety. You can find that resource here.
Thoughts about fear: As mentioned above, listen more than you speak initially. It is easy to think that your child shares your fears, but theirs might be quite different from your own.
For families with Ukrainian heritage of with family members who live in the Ukraine: This is an entirely different level of fear, and possibly grief and trauma, depending on how close your ties are to your homeland. Children are likely to have many more questions and some of them are likely to be very difficult for parents and adults to answer. As always, it is important to keep concepts keyed to the developmental level of understanding of the child. Too, recognize that physical closeness may be needed for a long time.
Address fears, but also focus on hope.
- The US, Canada and the entire European community is taking strident measures to put pressure on Russia.
- Numerous non-governmental organizations and non-profits that have already mobilized much support. The Red Cross, UNICEF, refugee organizations, CARE and the United Nations are just a few that are already active. Many others, such as organizations that send physicians to help after disasters are assessing how they might help if they haven’t already mobilized.
- While seeing the war erupt is the picture of what’s worst about humankind, this is also a time when we’re seeing the very best in people and countries. Families in countries near the Ukraine are opening their homes. Faith-based groups are organizing housing and food. Many countries have lifted any visa requirements or greatly simplified the process for Ukranians to seek refuge.
- Individuals around the world are launching their own efforts, including a multitude of crowd funding sites.
- People all over the world are demonstrating against the invasion. This adds to the political pressure for Russia.
- The people of Ukraine have shown great courage and commitment. Most of the men staying in the country to fight. This is a great statement about how important our homelands and our culture are to us all.
- Many positive changes in entire cultures have occurred as an outcome of war, conflict, domination or strife. The ending of Aparteid in South Africa is an example.
ENGAGING AND FEELING A SENSE OF AGENCY
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of times like these are feeling helpless to make a difference. There are lots of ways students or families could engage and be empowered to be part of what brings support to the Ukrainian people. Use this link to find a list of opportunities that are already in operation!
- Balance your conversations about the invasion by being sure to talk at least as much about the hopeful aspects, such as the many people and organizations that are organizing and are already responding.
- Help youth find ways to feel engaged and to have a sense of making a difference by doing fundraising or other efforts.
- It is OK to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” and take some time to reflect. Just be sure to come back to that conversation at a later time.
- Turn off the TV and media coverage and source your news in ways that don’t expose your young ones. For engaging older youth in the news, use reports you’ve been able to preview so you know what is covered and that it isn’t too graphic.
- Engage more in family fun and connectedness. Kids need to feel us a little closer and we need uplifting breaks.
- Indulge youth a bit while they come to terms with the emotional toll it is to learn about and face the presence of war in our world. This is no small thing.
- Find out whether there are Ukranian organizations close to you who have ways you can help.
- Engage youth in learning some of what is special about the Ukranian culture. Schools could bring in guest speakers from the Ukranian culture to tell their stories or perhaps to share in Ukranian crafts.
- Remember that your own worry is also a worry to your kids! Take care of yourselves and talk about your concerns to other adults rather than processing your own struggles with your kids.
Feel free to be in touch with us to ask specific questions or let us know what you think would be helpful for parents and educators as this conflict continues. Our contact page is here.
Check back for further resources regarding Ukraine! We’ll continue to respond to your requests on this.
If you are an educator, you are welcome to forward this blog link and our resources on to your families.