Being a parent is a hard job. That’s cliché, isn’t it? It is, but the reason it’s cliché is because it’s true. Before I became a child psychologist I briefly worked on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea and even did a stint as a heavy equipment mechanic for trucks that used the ice roads in Alaska. So when it comes to hard work I know what I’m talking about, and parenting is hands-down absolutely some of the hardest work there is.
Of all the things a parent does, looking your innocent child in the eyes and explaining a terrible reality is the worst. But when the reality is inescapable and children start asking questions, parents have to say something.
But what should parents say about the invasion of Ukraine? Here are ten tips for how to have that tough conversation with your kid:
- Show you are willing to talk about it, but let them start
The best way to start is to simply ask if they have heard anything about it, and then listen to what they have to say. When talking about terrible things, a parent’s job is 90% listening and 10% talking. Many kids might not want to talk about it now, but in a week or two they may be ready. Let them know that whenever they are ready to talk about it, you are ready have that talk with them.
2. Find out what they know (and don’t know) first
Before sharing what you know about the situation with your child, check what they already know and see if they have an accurate understanding. Kids that I’ve talked to have misunderstood where the war is, how long it has been going on, and who is involved. These may seem like simple mistakes, but children’s feelings will be very different if they mistakenly believe that the war is close to where they live, has been going on all their lives and they are just now finding out about it, or involves their own country. Taking time to listen and ask questions first can give you a window into what kind of information your child may need from you.
3. Don’t press the issue.
Once you have brought it up and talked about it, then simply let your kid know that you are there to answer their questions. Then let it drop. Pressing the issue may lead some kids to become overwhelmed. This is especially true for younger children, who often work out their worries and stress through indirect means, like play and art, instead of talking things through.
4. Stay sensitive to your child’s history and personality
Children who have already had runs-ins with danger may be much more sensitive to news about violence and war. Their feelings about it may be bigger and harder to manage. Other children are simply sensitive and their feelings can quickly spiral into something that is too much for them to handle. If this is your child, then reduce their exposure to news and emphasize safety and connection. Answer their questions honestly, but give what I call a “safety sandwich.” A statement that they are safe and far from danger, followed by the answer to their question, and another reminder that they are safe and you will keep it that way.
5. Focus on emotions
While it is important to share what you know and get the facts right, even more important is to tune in to your child’s emotional responses. Are they scared? Do they feel angry? Are they sad? If your kid has a hard time even naming what they feel or calming down, then getting a workbook on emotions can be a big help right now. Understanding these reactions can help you know when your child is getting overwhelmed and when it is time to take steps to reduce their exposure to the news. Which brings us to…
6. Take a break from the news
If your child is showing signs of worry and distress about the news, then take a break as a family and go a few news cycles without catching up on the latest. Hey, this will probably be a good chance for you to calm down too. Focus on time spent together and give your attention to each other instead of the news.
7. Check sources together
This is a war taking place in the misinformation age and it shows. Disinformation, phony images, misleading viral tweets, fake news stories: all these are playing a role in the war itself and just like adults kids are constantly exposed to misinformation. For older kids especially, encourage them to fact check what they hear and find online. If they show you an image that looks shady, go through the process of doing a reverse image search on Google, show them the joy of lateral reading, and introduce them to websites like Snopes. This is an opportunity to teach critical thinking skills, so seize it if the time feels right.
8. Focus on the positive
Ok I know, that sounds weird, right? The “positive”? In a war? Dr. Ron, you’re losing touch. But hear me out. Right now there are dozens of international aide groups mobilizing to help. The governments of the world are putting out statements saying that they will stand up for what is right. And people are unified in opposing violence. Taking time to show your child all the steps being taken by people all around the world is a great way to balance out the news coverage, which tends to show the worst problems, rather than the solutions.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news. My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”Fred Rogers
9. Take action
Speaking of aide groups, this might be a good time to take action as a family and donate to the efforts to help Ukraine. There are plenty of charities and on-the-ground relief efforts looking for support. Taking time to look through their sites and choose a charity together will give your child a sense of empowerment in a difficult time. CNN has a useful website where you can not only investigate different charities but make direct donations to them or give to a fund that supports all of them
10. Know when to get support
Children react differently to stressful events. For some, it rolls off of them easily. For others, war in a far away land means nightmares, regression to thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, and tantrums. When kids are showing signs of distress that interfere with their lives, then it may be time to talk to a professional counselor and get extra support. For many children just a few visits to a counselor can make a big difference.
There you have it. Ten tips for how to talk to kids about what is happening in Ukraine. Are there tips that you have? If so, leave them in the comments below.