Top 6 Tips: Talking to children about war
As parents, we want to help our children feel safe. This can present challenges when our children learn about war whether in school, from friends or from any kind of media. Now with easy access to social media, it is increasingly difficult to prevent our children from being exposed to war coverage, some of it can be very disturbing for adults, even more so for young souls.
I am increasingly asked: “If my child wants to talk about war or I know that they have seen or heard something about war, how do I best handle talking about the subject with them?”
Navigating those important conversations can offer you both an opportunity for a meaningful encounter. For you there is an opportunity to learn about what your child already knows and how they interpret what they heard. You can then mediate the information with age appropriate language and by offering a safe space to process feelings, help them to make sense of their experiences and shine a light on aspects they may not have considered but which will help them feel safe and connected.
When we encourage such conversations, the child also learns to reach out to us when they are confused, overwhelmed or distressed by anything they hear or learn at school or from social media. We, the parents, offer an important bridge between what is going on in the outer world to the child's inner world. A rule we keep developing and deepening as the child matures.
Here are my six top tips to help you navigate conversations about the Ukraine -Russia war.
Six Top Tips: Talking to children about war
1. Be age appropriate. Listen to what they know already. Asking the child what s/he heard or understood about the war, what they think about what they heard, how they feel and more, before you share your opinion and information. By allowing a child to share we learn about their concerns and feelings and can react accordingly. Frame what you want to say into short and easy to understand phrases using age appropriate language. Don't over inform them. You want to be honest, but keep your answers or information short and use age appropriate language to avoid overwhelming them.
Children of a young age cannot fully understand the concept of war or death. And for any age war is disturbing and distressing. Always normalise and validate the child's feelings. All feelings are normal and a child who learns to name the feelings and have them validated is a child who learns how to process and work through their feelings.
With teenagers the conversation can be more about the complexity of war, and thinking more deeply about how we as a society got into such a state of imbalanced power? How can you read news in a critical way to differentiate fake news from genuine news? This is a much more complex way of thinking to engage teens and adults in a conversation about war.
2. Highlight that there is good in the world. Reassure your children that there is an enormous amount of good in the world. Explain that good moral leaders and citizens sometimes have to fight for what is right. Your child can also share what they know about how people are supporting Ukraine people at this time. We want to convey that most people are good and most people choose good. This gives hope. 3. Separate a government from nationality. For example, a Russian family in your child's class probably has nothing to do with their government's decision to go to war. Use your language appropriately. Being aware of our language, and separating government or a leader from nationality is crucial for avoiding discrimination at school and society. Teaching this at a young age might prevent later projections that can be unfairly put on to others just because of their nationality, race, gender, religious or sexual orientation.
4. Emphasise that they are safe. Distance the threat from their current life. If needed show them a map and explain how far away it is in miles. Explain that you are here to protect them and keep them safe. 5. Minimise news exposure. If your child is distressed by war it might be wise to minimise news exposure and find ways for them to express their distress. Also be aware of the adult conversations at home about war. Children hear, observe and consume the energy around them. If you are glued to the news and radio, they might be more overwhelmed by the information. Keep boundaries for the news resources and time you consume it. 6. Expressing the distress. If your child is distressed by the war support them with finding expression for their feelings. Expression through drawing, being in nature movement or music can help immensely. Journaling and participating in sports are also channels to express and process strong feelings. Keep emphasising tips 2 and 3 and encourage them to take other positive actions like donating toys or drawing and writing letters to refugees, leading donations of essentials at the child's school or any other idea your child suggests to help make a difference.
I wish we could raise children in a wonderful, peaceful world where war only happens in the movies. I hold the hope that this is a transformational time, moving towards a better world, a conscious positive change to when all humanity is appreciated as equal, vulnerable and precious. It is a hope that lies with the next generation, for our children to make this hope become a reality. These tips and conversations might start to shape those ideas as it will be up to them- the next generation- to make better decisions for the good of human kind.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor, founder of The Village (getthevillage.com), and has been the Chair of Imago Relationship Therapy UK since 2013.