The news around Russia invading Ukraine is, understandably, everywhere. Our instincts as parents may be to protect our children from it – to act as a buffer between them and the scary things that are happening in the world. But the reality is, the sheer fact the news is everywhere means it’s almost inevitable most kids will pick up on the uncertainties currently unfolding in Eastern Europe. Our job is to navigate the overwhelming task of responding to our children’s fears and worries as best we can.
So where do we begin? Firstly, kids are much more intuitive than we often give them credit for and they pick up on a lot more than we realise. If you’re talking about what’s going on in Ukraine, even in hushed voices, or if you’re anxious about it, the likelihood is they’ll know that something’s going on, no matter how young they are. The best approach to conversations around these topics is to make sure you’re tailoring them to their age and to follow these simple steps when the topic comes up.
Follow their lead
In most cases, the conversation will come up naturally. Because kids are so attuned to what’s going on and so good at asking questions that get right to the crux of things, you’ll probably find yourself facing questions about what’s going on with Ukraine sooner rather than later. It’s important to follow your child’s lead and make time to talk things through with them. Listen to what they’re making of the situation. They may not be terrified or upset, they may just be curious and looking for an explanation. Give them the space to tell you what they know, how they feel and let them ask you questions. It’s important to let them be seen or heard and to explore their feelings about the situation.
If younger children don’t bring the conversation up naturally, you don’t need to force it. It’s all about following the lead of your kid and letting the conversation be guided by them. For teens and tweens who don’t bring it up, you can always offer a space to chat if they want it. A simple “I’m here to talk about what’s going on in Ukraine if you want to” leaves the door open for discussion.
Make it age appropriate
The way we approach these conversations will vary hugely depending on the age of the children we’re talking to. Younger children might not understand words like ‘conflict’ but might have picked up a certain sense of what’s going on. Teens and pre-teens may have seen things on social media or may watch Newsround, or have been exposed to the news in other ways. That’s why it’s crucial to find out what they’ve gleaned from the situation before you dive into talking about it. It might be enough to explain to younger children that sometimes countries fight, while older children might need more information and have more questions. Take care not to over-explain things or go into too much detail as this can increase anxiety.
Remember you don’t have to have all the answers
There’s a lot going on and the Russia Ukraine situation is unfolding day by day, sometimes hour by hour. There’s also a lot of history to unpick that you might not be totally clued up on – and that’s OK. It’s OK to tell your child you don’t have all the answers. When we’re talking about complex issues with our children, it’s OK to admit that we’re not experts. Tell them that you’re learning too. If they have a specific question that you don’t have the answer to, tell them that you don’t know but you’ll find out and get back to them.
If your child comes to you with a piece of information that you don’t think is accurate, don’t dismiss it. Chat to them about where they heard that information and explore it together. Look at trusted news resources to challenge what they’ve seen and talk it through.
Don’t minimise their fears
As tempting as it might be to brush off any fears your child might be having about what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine, it’s crucial not to minimise their concerns. Validate their fears by telling them it’s OK and natural to feel scared, concerned or anxious. This will help them to normalise their feelings. Giving them space to feel what they’re feeling is essential at such a turbulent time.
Giving children the chance to have an open and honest conversation about things that are on their mind can alleviate their concerns. Remind them that you’re there for them and are always available to talk about what’s going on in the world.
One reassuring thing about the Russia / Ukraine conflict is the way leaders across the rest of the world have pulled together to stand against Putin. This can be a really useful way to appease your kids if they’re feeling anxious. You can remind them that there are adults all over the world working hard to resolve this situation and so it’s not their problem to solve. They don’t have to feel guilty for playing, watching TV or living their lives.
It can be really useful to think about the way you’re presenting your emotions in these moments too. If you’re anxious, your child is going to pick up on these feelings. Try to remain as calm as possible. Some children might find it comforting to see the distance between us and Ukraine on a map. Others might benefit from hearing about the sanctions imposed on Russia. Words like ‘sanctions’ may be too complex but ‘punishments’ will be easy to understand.
Give them a practical way to support
Children are often pretty solution focused. So even though you may have told them it’s not their problem to solve, it might help if they can feel like they’re doing something. They could start fundraisers, write letters to local decision-makers or create drawings for peace. You could talk about supporting organisations like Save the Children, Red Cross, The UN Refugee Agency or research others together.
Check Back In
Most importantly, it looks like things with Russia and Ukraine are going to rumble on for a while. It’s important to keep checking back in with your kids. Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety and remind them you’re there if they need you.
Advice if You’re Upset By the News – Newsround | How to talk to children about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, especially if they’ve been through their own trauma – Philadelphia Inquirer | Talking with Kids About War – Family Education | How and When to Talk to Kids about War – Independent | How to Talk to Kids About Ukraine – NY Times