Dr. Rachel Kramer
February 27: Talking with Children About Ukraine
This week I have received inquiries from several families regarding how to talk with children about the invasion of Ukraine. The answer to this question depends on so many factors including your child’s age, temperament, exposure to news and social media, and contact with siblings or peers who may be discussing the situation. That said, I want to provide some general guidelines about how to discuss this difficult and upsetting topic.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that this is an overwhelming situation for adults to try to comprehend and process. It is completely understandable if you feel distraught about the war in Ukraine. Before you talk with your child, find another adult with whom you can talk about the invasion and your range of feelings and reactions. Processing your own reactions with a partner, family member, or good friend will help you feel more settled when you talk with your child. We know that children take their emotional cues from the adults around them, so if you can engage in a conversation about Ukraine at a time when you feel calm and settled your child will get the message that you are available to speak openly and honestly.
How do you decide if you should even raise this topic with your child? For toddlers and preschoolers who have not been exposed to media and do not have contact with older children, it is probably ok to assume that your child has not heard about the invasion, in which case I do not recommend raising the topic proactively. You might want to reach out to your child’s teacher and ask them to let you know if the topic comes up at school so that you can initiate a conversation with your young child if that happens. Otherwise, I’d suggest monitoring your child’s behavior, play, and conversation to see if there are any indicators of increased anxiety or themes of violence or war.
If your young child has observed you or other adults having strong reactions to the news, be honest about your feelings and reassure your child that you are not upset with them and your reactions are not their fault:
“I’m sad about something that is happening far away. You are safe and our family is safe.”
“Sometimes parents have big feelings too. Even when I have big feelings I will still keep you safe.”
For elementary school aged children:
Begin by asking them what they know: have they heard people talking about war or an invasion? Have they seen anything on screens about Ukraine?
Focus on feelings. Ask questions and reflect back what you hear:
“I imagine it was scary when kids at school said World War III was starting
“How are you feeling about what you saw?
“Sounds like you felt really sad when you heard that some kids in Ukraine might not be safe.”
Some children may be curious and have a lot of questions. Consider finding a helpful article from a trusted news source that you can read together and discuss. Common Sense Media has a list of recommended news sources for children.
Alternatively, some children may not have interest in engaging in a conversation about Ukraine. In this situation, I recommend talking briefly about some basic information and then reassuring your child that they do not have to talk about this topic right now but that you are available if they have questions or want to talk about it at any point in the future.
Keep in mind that you are likely to have a series of ongoing discussions with your child as the news evolves rather than a single ‘one and done’ big conversation.
As always remember that in times of uncertainty children (and adults!) derive comfort from sticking with predictable routines as much as possible.
For tweens and teens:
Assume that children in this age group have had at least some exposure to the situation in Ukraine from looking at online sources or social media. Even if your tween does not have a phone, it is likely that they have heard peers talking about the invasion.
As much as possible, remind yourself to focus on listening to your tween or teen without judgment. Inquire about what they have watched or heard, ask about their feelings, and let them talk and process.
Focus on feelings with older children as well. This topic is complicated and upsetting, and one of the most helpful things parents can do is emphasize connection and the fact that teens do not need to process this information alone:
“It’s understandable if you feel upset about Ukraine. I’m here to talk about it whenever you would like to.”
Remind teens that TikTok is not a reliable source of news about most topics.
If your tween or teen is seeking factual information, re-direct them to the Common Sense Media resources above.
This is a good opportunity to talk about the difference between acquiring factual information about current events from a trusted new source versus doom scrolling through social media posts, which tends increase feelings of helplessness and distress.
You can also talk with your tween or teen about finding a balance between being informed and taking a break from media.
“I realize it’s hard to look away from some of this content. I’d like you to think about if you feel better or worse when you spend a lot of time looking at memes about war."
“Sounds like it’s really important to you that you stay informed. I respect that. Let’s talk about a way to do that which also allows you to have a break from upsetting content for a while each day.”
Older children may feel helpless about being so far away and unable to take tangible action to help the citizens of Ukraine. You can ask your teen to research organizations that are providing help for refugees and brainstorm ways to raise money to make a donation.
Finally, keep in mind that this very upsetting situation has developed at a time when so many people already feel exhausted and depleted by living through two years of a global pandemic. It is understandable if you or your child feel overwhelmed. Please try to be gentle with yourself and treat yourself and your child with kindness and compassion.