With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the lead story on every news outlet, parents and educators are now placed in the position of having to explain the enormously complex emotions and realities of war to children who have already had a deeply traumatic couple of years.
It’s a daunting task — but not impossible, says Marsha Richardson, director of the School and Mental Health Counseling Program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
“When it comes to issues like this, sometimes we can find it hard to connect the dots between a child’s behavior and the events unfolding in the world around them,” says Richardson. “This is about being in tune with and understanding, developmentally, the ways in which these stressful situations might manifest for children.”
She offers these tips:
First, do some self-reflection.
Before trying to talk a child through this, take the time to self-reflect on your emotional state as well as your political, moral, and religious views. Consider that all of these will influence the way you respond to the situation, the conversation, and any questions a child might have. Doing this ahead of time helps you avoid figuring it out for yourself in front of them, which is of significant importance to younger children. Parents, in particular, should strive to remember they are the model for their child’s emotional regulation.
Keep the child’s age in mind.
When dealing with conversations around such complex situations, it’s easy to forget the age of your audience. As you approach talking about the war with a child, consider their age and developmental stage — and respond to their questions and comments accordingly. For example, an elementary school-age response to the question of why Russia and Ukraine are fighting could be, “They are fighting to figure out who’s in charge of the country.” For an older child, the response to that question could be, “They are fighting to gain power over a country that has a unique position in world politics.”
Keep in mind, too, that the child’s age could determine the nature of their concerns. For example, younger children may be more focused on issues of safety and security primarily for themselves and their loved ones, while middle schoolers may be more focused on factual information and high schoolers will have begun assimilating the values of caregivers, school, peers, and media. With a younger child, you may need to reassure them that you and their country are ensuring their safety. With a middle-schooler, you can provide accurate information and engage in further research alongside them. With a high schooler, you can help them think critically about what they know, how they obtained that information, and how they might consider the broader context of their role in current or future influence on these issues.
Get out in front of misinformation or biases.
For children of all ages, be sure to ask them what they know. Correct any misinformation or negative generalizations they may have — for example, “all Russians are bad” — and provide them with the truth and context they need. Convey that those generalizations are particularly hurtful for some of their class- or schoolmates who may be Russian or Ukrainian. Those students, some of whom may still have close family in Russia or Ukraine, may be experiencing heightened anxiety, isolation, or even bullying.
Consider limiting news consumption
Parents of younger children might want to limit their child’s access to news coverage of the war. We might not think twice about leaving CNN or another news channel on all day when such significant world events are occurring, but the constant stream of wartime stories, images, and sounds can be overwhelming for a small child. Traumatic videos and photographs of dead bodies and bombings frequently make it to air in these situations. While older children might be better equipped to deal with the shocking imagery of televised war coverage, you should make sure to sit down with them and help them process the things they’re hearing and seeing.
Look for changes in behavior
Parents should also pay attention to any regressive behaviors that might manifest, as some children won’t be able to articulate their stress over what’s happening. Things to look for would be thumb-sucking, requesting to sleep in your bed, increased tearfulness, a drop in grades, or somatic complaints like headaches, stomachaches, and sleeplessness. Maintain an open line of communication with your child’s school, teachers, and counselors if you suspect behavioral changes are impacting their learning and interpersonal relationships. Teachers should similarly be on the lookout for behavioral changes and keeping parents apprised of any that might come up.
Don’t be afraid to reach out
Finally, be sure to seek support — both within your personal spheres and professionally — to help you manage your own distress. If you’re having trouble processing things emotionally, it’s more than likely your children or students are and will be impacted.