Speaking To Your Kids About Ukraine

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As Vladimir Putin continues his unrelenting attack on Ukraine and the death and destruction in the region plays out in vivid details on our TVs each night, many parents are struggling with how to speak to their kids about the invasion and the war.

The experts say that for the youngest – kids 5 and under – the answer is simple, if they do not bring it up, you should not either. The experts all agree that unless young kids directly ask, which is unlikely, there’s no benefit to discussing the conflict, they said.

For older kids, however, the answer is not such a simple one. When you are dealing with grade school-aged children, it is more than likely that someone they come into contact with will bring it up even if parents don’t. And children are best served by having a discussion about such serious matters with their folks.

“If they start to hear it from others, that can be really scary if parents haven’t already approached that subject with them,” said Dee Ray, a professor of early childhood education at the University of North Texas and director of its Center for Play Therapy. “Most children do go out into the world, and you wouldn’t want them to hear from friends or other very anxious adults first.”

Laurie Singer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Camarillo, California, who is board certified in applied behavior analysis, said that “one of the most important jobs as parents is to help our children feel safe and listened to.”

The pandemic has already created unprecedented stress and upheaval in the lives of many children. Events like the war in Ukraine could only exacerbate their level of stress and anxiety, Singer noted.

“Without the experience to understand context and nuance as well as most adults, a child’s imagination can play a significant role in hyper-focusing on anxiety-provoking problems,” she said. “So, it’s imperative that parents communicate with their children in a way that helps them stay calm.”

Similarly, Ray pointed out that children are “great perceivers and poor interpreters.” They see things but don’t know what it means, so adults need to talk them through it.

Age Matters

Understanding a child’s developmental age is crucial to having the right conversation, according to Sam Goldstein, psychologist and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah.

“You can do more harm by trying to talk to a 6-year-old about stuff they don’t understand — or trying to talk to a 15-year-old like they are 6 years old,” he said.

Experts agreed that parents should definitely be talking to children 8 and older. But the child’s developmental age should drive the conversation.

Younger than about age 10, children worry most about how they or those close to them will be impacted by whatever’s happening. So, reassurance is vital.

For older kids, parents can talk about what the kids can and cannot control in a situation.

A child’s questions can guide the level of detail. A parent can be far more detailed with a child who’s 14 or 15, perhaps exploring the political thinking involved in both the invasion and the response.

Understand and Measure Your Own Responses to the Crisis

Before you can help your children cope with the anxiety that news about death and destruction in a faraway place can cause, you must come to grips with your feelings and anxieties about the situation; your kids will reflect exactly what you show and tell them – in words and actions. 

Parents must consider their own response to the situation because that will impact their child’s perspective, said Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, who’s studying for a doctorate in global leadership and Change at Pepperdine University.

“The words you say as a parent will be replicated in the settings they are exposed to, whether school, activities, or outside friend groups,” she said.

Other experts echoed her advice that parents pay attention not just to their children’s media exposure but to their own. Singer is among the counselors who noted that children aren’t the only ones who feel anxious about world news. Adults can be very unsettled, too.

“Be mindful of what news you’re watching with your child present or that they might be able to hear,” said Singer. “As always, we need to pay attention to what our children are watching or listening to on social media as well as television.”

Bahar suggested that parents attend school board or other meetings and ask how teachers are being trained to talk to students about troubling world events, then consider how they feel about the approach. “The key here is to consider consistent messaging, so the child is getting clear messages from the areas they are influenced by,” she added.

Emphasize Empathy

Children need to know that they’re safe and their loved ones are safe before they can even think about other people being hurt in other countries, he said. But most children are empathetic and do want to help other children.

Singer said parents should consider how they, along with their children, can help — through a charity, a church group, or other nonprofit. “Taking action can be very empowering and provide a child with a sense of strength and compassion,” she said.

Helping your child find ways to help not only reduces his or her feelings of powerlessness, but it also helps raise good citizens, she said. And helping others together can strengthen the parent-child bond.

Ray warns against portraying groups of people as all good or all bad.

“We want to make sure our children know that there are children in Russia just like them and children in Ukraine that are just like them and not try to make it that the entire country in Russia is doing this bad thing,” she said, noting that there are people who are risking their lives in Russia to protest the invasion.

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