In the last two years, most of us have had our share of stressful events. We seem to have now jumped straight from the Covid-19 pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

If you are a parent, grandparent or teacher, you may ask yourself: Should I talk to children about these world events? It’s an important but difficult question to answer… and if we do, how should we go about it?

As the world navigates challenges and crises, we need to remember to keep lines of communications open and have honest discussions with children and young people so they can grow up as informed and thoughtful world citizens. Our Fegans counsellors provide some suggestions for engaging in conversations about the situation in Ukraine, and how to tailor them based on age and maturity levels.

Three reasons to talk to children about the war in Ukraine

  1. To help children process difficult emotions that may arise. Although it might seem like a good idea to avoid an in-depth discussion, evidence suggests that having a supportive discussion about a stressful event can actually decrease distress. In other words, it’s always best to address ‘the elephant in the room’. Having these conversations provides you with the opportunity to help your child make sense of how they might be feeling and to provide reassurance.
  2. To combat misinformation. In this age of ubiquitous access to news and media, children and teens have likely already been exposed to some kind of information about the invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, there has been a surge of misinformation shared on social media apps routinely used by them, such as TikTok and Snapchat. This makes it critical for parents to keep children informed about the war based on reliable information from reputable sources, and to provide opportunities for children to ask questions.
  3. To encourage compassionate views towards others. Talking to children about the war in Ukraine can encourage a compassionate view towards fellow humans, regardless of distance or circumstance. Taking the time to talk with children about world events is an opportunity to understand the emotions of others. Asking a question such as “what might someone else in this situation be feeling right now?” can help nurture an empathic view of other peoples’ lives. 

Conversations with children under the age of five

Children under the age of five may have a very limited understanding of the conflict. If your child asks you a question about what is happening, provide them with simple information and avoid providing more detail than requested.

For example, you could say “one country is not being very nice to another country and it is making people feel upset.” For children of all ages, it’s important to be mindful of exposure to news and media, especially violent content. It is also important to minimise what young children overhear of adult conversations.

Conversations with school-aged children and teenagers

First, make sure that you are feeling calm enough to have the discussion. If you are feeling upset, tired or anxious, it is best to give yourself some time before initiating the conversation. 

Start by asking your child what they have heard or what they might know about the conflict in Ukraine. Next, validate and normalise how they are feeling. If they say it’s distressing for them, you can say: “It can be scary to think about a war; most kids and adults feel scared too.” If your child does not know very much or does not seem to be very concerned about what is happening, just keep the discussion brief.

Talking about the distance between the UK and ongoing fighting can be helpful. It’s a fact that wars are happening across the globe and have been ongoing throughout your child’s life. Tweens may want to watch Newsround which explains events clearly and in an age-appropriate way. You could even sit and watch it together and then have a discussion about what you’ve heard.

Regardless of whether they are distressed or not, you can share some factual age-appropriate information. Teenagers’ brains are wired to find out things for themselves, rather than be told, so direct them to reliable information sources.

Most importantly, children need reassurance that adults will do everything they can to keep them safe. Ultimately, by having these conversations, you show your child that you are willing and open to having discussions, even when times are tough. This can help build a lasting foundation to talk about difficult topics.

Our children are not the first generation of children to grow up with wars. What is new is how this generation of young people are accessing and consuming news. It is therefore vital for children to be adequately informed and reassured by the adults they trust, and to be provided with opportunities to make sense of how they might be feeling as distressing events unfold.