How to Talk to Kids About the War in Ukraine

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Our kids are no strangers to navigating frightening circumstances (thanks, pandemic), and whether you expected to or not, you’ve likely parented through some pretty tough conversations already. But the universe—and Vladimir Putin—keep throwing frightening headlines, broadcasts and social media posts our way. Naturally, kids will intercept some of this, and our responses can go a long way to prepare and protect our children from what they see and hear—most of which makes the crisis seem just next door.

Limit their exposure. ( “We can control the amount of information. We can control the amount of exposure,” says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop. Particularly for younger children, try not to let them experience the news without you. In 2017, 42 percent of parents of young children told Common Sense Media that the TV is on “always” or “most” of the time. Be aware of what’s being broadcast, because background noise to you might be incredibly frightening to a child. Truglio says “because we can’t control the news itself, adults need to control the technology that exposes kids to potentially traumatic news.” For young children, this might be as simple as changing the channel.

Stick to the facts. ( Limiting your kids’ exposure to frightening news coverage of the escalating situation in the Ukraine doesn’t mean that they won’t—or shouldn’t—be aware of what’s happening. Tara Conley, a media researcher at Montclair State University, says adults should choose a quiet moment to check in with their kids, maybe at the dinner table or at bedtime. “Ask questions about what they’re seeing, how they’re feeling and what do they think.” Then, reach for a map. Show them that while the Russian invasion is certainly important, it’s not in their immediate vicinity. Even though the news makes what’s happening feel like it’s next door, the Ukraine is actually a very long way away. Even if you have to do a little research yourself, be prepared to answer the basic plot line questions: who, what, when, where and why? And if you don’t know, it’s okay to say that, too.

Look for the helpers. As the late Mr. Rogers put it: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Scroll together. Laura Linn Knight, a parenting educator and author of the upcoming book, “Break Free from Reactive Parenting,” told TODAY “Kids are wanting autonomy with their own screens, and parents are feeling the need to supervise and to have limits, but it causes this daily power struggle in so many homes.” The solution? Sit down with your kids and scroll their feeds together. Give them a safe space to pause, reflect and ask you questions.

Provide definitions. ( Another applicable quote by Fred Rogers is “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings (and scary situations), they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.” Writer and mom Deborah Farmer Kris kept this in mind when she talked to her 8-year old about the Ukraine. ” I explained sanctions in simple terms and named some of the other countries imposing sanctions.” The news coverage of the situation is full of big words that kids don’t understand. Define them. Help them understand what they’re hearing, because their imaginations will become the dictionary, if not.

Photo via iStock.

Validate their feelings. ( What’s happening in the world—and the possible implications—are scary. When discussing what they’ve seen and heard, don’t correct their feelings. Whatever they’re feeling, let them know it’s ok. Let them talk to you about those feelings. Share how you’re feeling, too. But if you’re going to do that, parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa recommended to TODAY that parents should work through their feelings before talking with their children. “You can’t be a place for your child to process your emotions,” she explained. “A conversation with your child about a big scary somewhat incomprehensible topic is not the right place to work out your emotions.”

Keep developmental ages in mind. According to The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, “Kids’ bodies and brains change rapidly as they get older. So, school-age children (ages 7-12) may have different anxieties about a situation than a teen (ages 13-18) or young adult.” Younger children need simplicity, reassurance and can take comfort in their routines. Older school-aged children need to process a situation, and that’s done best through conversation.


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