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Tips for Talking to Your Children about the Current Conflict in Ukraine

If your children are present and you start to feel anxious, regulate your emotions and focus on your what kids need. 

The war in Ukraine has been filling our news for almost 2 weeks. While the news coverage has started to decrease as the war continues, the images of bombed buildings, crying mothers and children as they leave their fathers, brothers, uncles – those males of fighting age behind, are still fresh. The news headlines and discussions also mention the possibility of nuclear weapons. This leaves some American adults anxious and worried. It could be affecting some children who may or may not have seen the images or have the ability to understand what war means.  The more helpful question for many parents might be “How can I help my children make sense of what they hear and see about the Ukraine war?”  Today, as one parent to another, I will share some ideas about this sensitive topic.

Regulate your own feelings and be gentle with yourself

I realized after I’d been parenting for a while, the subtle cues my children took from me. If I jumped when I saw a spider, they would jump when they saw a spider. If I was afraid of water, they were afraid of the water. It’s part of how they learn. The good news is that once we learn the effect of our emotional state, we understand also, that we can help them respond to hard or negative experiences and events. Noticing our own responses, regulating and controlling our own emotional and physical signals helps us to help our children to feel safe. I found this to be true with my kids. My calmness conveyed that it was going to be alright. We were ok. Sometimes that meant, not feeling my own feelings right away, but concentrating on theirs. If your children are present and you start to feel anxious, regulate your emotions and focus on your what kids need. Generally, non-verbal cues are the loudest cues. When we are tense, our tone of voice changes. We hold tension in our shoulders and other parts of our body. Learn your cues. If you need to take a quick “bathroom break” do it. You can breathe in and out, take care of yourself and regulate your emotions. One way of quickly bringing ourselves out of intense emotional states is to focus on something intricate, like a painting or pattern. Then describe what you see out loud and in detail. This process brings out our logical, analytical brain. Once you have calmed yourself, you can then take care of your kids. Later, please circle back to your own feelings in private. Care for yourself as you care for your children. You deserve to be comforted too.

Pay attention to your children’s behavior

Are they more upset or emotional than normal? Do they once again need a night light on, need a blanket, or want to sleep with you? Are their emotions closer to the surface, crying or getting angry more often?  Any of these could be evidence that they are anxious about something.

Limit your children’s exposure to the news

If your children are young, watch the news in a private place when they are asleep. If the children spend time with another caregiver or parent, discuss this recommendation with them. Communicate with each other about what you’ve each observed. As hard as we try, our little kids may still be exposed.  You may be watching a TV show when a special report breaks in. Think about your kids first, decide what’s best for them – should you watch for a minute, turn it off or change the channel? What are you children’s’ reactions telling you?  Are they tense, scared, looking down, holding tightly to you, a pet, stuffed animal or a blanket?  Those might be a sign of anxiety.  If so, turning off the TV might give you the opportunity to help them with their feelings. With older children who may be on social media, or may have teachers that bring up the war, make time to discuss what’s happening with them. Watching the news together might be a good way to explore how they feel about what they have seen and heard.

Two children on the couch shocked by the television

Help them to define and frame what they are feeling, while at the same time helping them to feel safe.

This applies to anything that can cause anxiety.  A test, a new school or any future event can cause anxiety. Aid them in figuring out what they are feeling. Using the example in #3, if you chose to turn off the TV, it’s a good time to discuss what they heard or saw. You might say “That looked scary. What do you think about what you saw?” If the report began with “The War in Ukraine,” you may want to ask your small children if they know what war is? You may be surprised at their answer.  Years ago, my nephew and son, ages 5 and 4 respectively, were talking about sex.  All I heard was the word “sex.” I asked them, “Do you know what sex is?” My nephew’s response, “I’m not sure, but it’s worse than lying!” I was able to give them an age appropriate definition of sex.  When it comes to defining war, we may need to supply the definition.  You might describe it as a disagreement between two nations or groups of people.  How much more you say is up to what you think your child can handle without producing greater anxiety.

…my calmness conveyed that it was going to be alright.  We were ok!  

Frame how it affects them.

The war is happening very far away from us. E.g., Portland, OR is 5,756 miles from the Ukraine. Give examples of distances that hit home, or distance they’ve experienced. The store is 2 miles away.  We’d have to go almost 3,000 times to drive that far.  That would take us almost 8 years if we went two times every day. Remind them that the US is not in the war. We are safe and they are safe. 

Teach them that it’s good to have feelings about the suffering they see.

Compassion can lead to action. This begins with you. Demonstrate your compassion in safe ways. Mirror back what your child says and what they perceive; yes, they do look scared or sad, it is hard to leave (lose) your home. Suggest ways to help.  Sending money to relief organizations can help, even if it is just a dollar or two. If a nearby organization is collecting coats, warm clothing or other personal items, suggest that each person in the family give something that belongs to them. Teach them that acting compassionately can be as important as having empathy and feelings of compassion.

Volunteers packing donation boxes in charity to help Ukrainian people

Tend to your feeling and teach your children the importance of tending to theirs. Practice and teach Mindful self-compassion.

Mindful self-compassion is taking the time to understand the feelings we are having and give ourselves compassion and comfort. Most, if not all people, are uncomfortable and saddened by the suffering of others.  We respond often with empathy and begin to hurt ourselves. We all deserve to be comforted when we hurt. If we are feeling afraid or uncertain, noticing and not ignoring our fear is important. We can teach our kids phrases to comfort themselves and we can comfort them using these ideas. These ideas are specific to fear and the war.

  • The war is far away.  It can’t hurt you here.
  • Tell themselves what they’d tell a friend: I’m so sorry you are feeling scared, uncertain.
  • Everybody gets scared. Most of us get scared lots of times.  Even big people. 
  • Of course, you are scared. Feeling fear is not fun, but it’s good.  It tells you that something is not right. It’s telling you to protect yourself.
  • Today the thing you are afraid of is far away. Today you don’t need to be afraid. You are safe from war today.

Taking care of your kids, teaching them to care for themselves in light of the suffering we see in the world is important.  Please treat yourself as gently as you treat your children. That is one of the best lessons you can give them.

Additional resources / advice on how to talk to your children about the crisis from ABC News, CBS News, and Today!

https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Family/video/talk-kids-russia-ukraine-crisis-83128386

https://www.cbsnews.com/video/child-psychologist-shares-advice-on-how-to-talk-with-kids-about-the-russia-ukraine-war/

https://www.today.com/parents/how-talk-children-about-war-age-age-guide-t171381

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