The news coming out of Ukraine as Russian forces step up their attacks is devastating.
It can be hard to know how to talk to children about what’s happening in the world – particularly when we’re dealing with what Boris Johnson calls “barbaric and indiscriminate” violence against Ukrainian civilians.
But if a child is of a certain age, it’s likely they’re already aware of what’s happening – and adults will want to help them understand the events in an appropriate and empathetic way…
Why should you talk to children about important – and devastating – world events?
“They’re going to hear about it anyway, especially these days in our ever-connected world, with screens all over the place,” says Liat Hughes Joshi (liathughesjoshi.co.uk), author of parenting books including Help Your Child Cope With Change (Summersdale, £10.99, available June 9).
Child communication expert Kavin Wadhar from KidCoachApp (kidcoach.app) asks: “How old is the child, and how ready are they for the conversation? If they’re five-years-old and they haven’t heard anything about this anyway, there’s probably no need to force it upon them. But if they’re a little bit older and they’ve already heard things… Then I wouldn’t shy away from engaging in the things going on in the world.”
For Hughes Joshi, it’s important to talk to children about these big topics – particularly so you can give them the right information, and help them work through their feelings. She mentions the “rumour mill of the playground”, which can “take little bits of factual information, and blow them out of proportion”.
She adds: “This is a genuinely frightening situation anyway, so you don’t need to add some children’s hyperbole to make it frightening. The fact is they’re going to be hearing about this at school, and one of your roles is to help them understand what is true and what isn’t true, give them perspective, and reassure them as best you can.”
How can you approach these conversations?
Hughes Joshi suggests one of the most important things is to “ask open-ended questions, and let them talk”. You could start conversations with something as simple as, ‘What have you heard about the situation in Ukraine?’
Listening to what a child says is vital, because “we need to know what they have heard, to then be able to correct any misunderstanding”, she says.
Wadhar adds: “It’s amazing how much children can talk and think when given the opportunity to do so.” He recommends using it as an opportunity to exercise empathy, by asking children questions such as: ‘What can we do to help?’
Should you sanitise what’s happening?
“It depends on age, and it depends on the child’s temperament as well,” says Hughes Joshi. “[But] you can’t pretend there’s no war, you can’t take that sanitising too far.”
Her advice is to have a “factual, but reassuring” tone – and to avoid lying. “If your child thinks you’re lying, they won’t be able to trust what you’re saying – and they need to be able to trust you.”
Are there any opportunities within these conversations?
Definitely, says Wadhar. Perhaps the slightly older child who has a sense of politics could exercise some critical thinking, he suggests. Adults could ask them: ‘What would you do if you were X, Y, Z? If you were [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky? What would you do if you were Boris Johnson, or leaders flying over to Poland today?’
He continues: “As devastating as everything is, it’s still an opportunity to help our children think about the way the world works, put themselves in the shoes of different people, and critically and analytically try and analyse the situation.”
It also provides a chance for children to make sure “they have the correct, representative view of what’s going on”. Wadhar recommends helping them look at the correct news sources – and also being comfortable showing a bit of vulnerability.
“As parents, we don’t need to tell them everything that’s going on – we should use resources around us to help, but then be there for the follow-up discussion,” he says. If a child asks a question you don’t know the answer to, you could say: “I honestly don’t know, but let’s look at it together, let’s research together – which builds another skill: the ability to research, use Google properly, and fact-finding. If you don’t know something, it makes it a bit more positive, and also a shared activity if you figure it out together.”
How can you reassure children?
Wadhar recommends reassuring kids by saying things like: “We’re in the UK, a fair distance away from Ukraine and things going on there. We’re safe in that sense, physically separated.
And [you can] talk to them about how we have really good people in charge, and the world is supporting Ukraine.”
Hughes Joshi stresses the importance of finding ways to “help people who are in a less fortunate position, perhaps if there’s a collection or making a donation – it can help children feel like they’re doing something, no matter how small, and that can make a difference”.
She also suggests a big part of keeping children calm is leading by example. “Plenty of adults are feeling anxious about this, too – and that’s completely understandable,” she says. “I’m not saying pretend you’re not worried about it to your child, but try and tone down your own anxiety, and find other outlets for it.
“A child takes their cues from parents and other adults around them, so if you’re looking fairly calm about it, then they will feel calm, too.”
It’s also worth making sure the news isn’t playing in the background all the time, because that might “stoke up their anxiety – they need a break from it”.