No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, there’s no denying the horrific tragedy that is playing out on a daily basis in Ukraine. But as much as you might be glued to the TV, chances are your children are also hearing the horrendous news reports, too. So how do you talk to your kids about Ukraine? It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s an important one to have.
If you think that your kids are completely clueless about what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine, think again. I heard my 7 year-old and my 5 year-old debating about it in the backseat of the car the other day. “I know that Russia wants Ukraine to leave, but I don’t know why,” my little guy told his bigger sister. “I think they don’t like each other,” she responded. “But it’s scary if they’re using guns and tanks.” And this is the reason why you need to speak to your kids about issues that are happening in the world, Annia Palacios, a licensed professional counselor tells Celebrity Parents. “It is so important to have these conversations with our kids, even though it’s hard,” says Palacios. “As parents it’s important to remember that even if they are not hearing it from us, children will likely get information from someone else, including social media.”
Here’s how you can talk to your kids about Ukraine, so that they feel educated, empowered, and above all, safe.
Focus On The Facts
What is currently happening in Ukraine is a human rights issue, and as such, it’s easy to get emotional when you’re explaining to your child about the damage being inflicted upon not just the country, but the people of Ukraine. Still, it’s important to be concise and specific in your responses, says Palacios. “We can talk to our teens and tweens about war and an invasion, but our younger kids may do better with an example asking how would you feel if someone tried to take over your room without asking?” she says. “Right now, the person in charge of one country, Russia, is trying to come into another country, Ukraine, and say ‘This is mine’ even though it’s not.’”
Use A Map
For many kids (and let’s face it, some adults), it might be difficult to understand where Ukraine actually is, much less what’s happening in the country itself. To help your child comprehend the bigger picture, “Pull out a map or use a computer to allow them to visualize where Ukraine and Russia are, while also providing context on how far away we are,” suggests Palacios. And while you might be tempted to just do a Google search for “Ukraine”, you never know what images might come up on a search that could be deeply disturbing to your child. So have the images already loaded on your computer before you begin your conversation.
Use Age-Appropriate Language
Young children can’t comprehend all the intricacies of an invasion, but they can relate to bullies. “For younger children, explaining that a larger country is bullying and hurting a smaller country and adults across the world are working together to help resolve this situation is sufficient,” Rebekah Roulier, LMHC, Deputy Director at Doc Wayne Youth Services, a Boston nonprofit that fuses sport and therapy to heal and strengthen youth, helping them cope with emotional challenges and traumatic events while learning important life skills. “It’s not necessary to extensively detail the dynamics between Russia and Ukraine to young children as they are just grasping the concept of foreign countries.”
Assess What They Already Know
Before you bombard your child with facts and figures they might not be able to process or even want to know, see what they already know about the situation. “As with any scary situation, be sure to calmly listen to your child and before describing the situation ask them what they know first,” says Roulier. “Start with, ‘What have you heard?’, and once you have listened, your response will be more appropriate to where they are at.” By doing so, you can help make the situation less scary for your little sweetie.
Validate Their Feelings
As a parent, the last thing you want is for your child to feel scared or unsure. But in an effort to make your child feel better, you can’t dismiss their emotions — or worse, pretend that they’re not real. “Speak simply and share that people all over the world are working hard to resolve this situation,” says Roulier. “Validate their feelings and concerns by looking at them in the eyes, lean forward, and assure them that it’s ok to feel whatever they are feeling.” You can even tell them, in a calm voice, that they are safe so they don’t worry more than necessary.
Offer Advocacy Options
It can be hard for your child to feel helpless when they know that other people, including children, are needlessly suffering. Depending on the age of your child, you might want to look into ways in which your family can help with the humanitarian efforts. “Assure children that they do not need to solve the problem themselves but support children who do want to make a difference,” says Roulier. Children often feel empowered by learning about advocacy and can contribute through fundraisers or writing letters to decision makers.” Younger children can start a canned food or clothing drive to benefit Ukrainian refugees.
Stick To Your Family’s Schedule
Consistency doesn’t just help your family to function better, but it can also create a sense of calm for your kiddo. Even though you might be feeling outraged to the point that it disrupts your family’s flow, try to stick to your schedule — for everyone’s sake. “Try to maintain typical household routines,” says Roulier. To help your child deal with big emotions, you can provide outlets for creative expression such as art or unstructured play.
Turn Off The TV
With so many developments happening, it’s understandable that you might be glued to the TV. But too much news isn’t good — for any of you. If you want to help your child feel less scared, you might need to step back from that remote, Jenna Ellis, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor at Spill the Tea Psychotherapy LLC. “The first step is to minimize your own exposure and information saturation — it doesn’t help you or your kids to have all the details of the horrors that are currently happening in Ukraine,” she says. “All that does is increase the likelihood of exposing yourself to secondary trauma reactions, and you won’t be as big a help to your kids if you’re being traumatized at the same time.” Because even if you think that your child isn’t watching or listening, they are.
Be Aware Of Any New Issues Your Child Is Dealing With
Maybe your child is complaining of tummy troubles, or is suddenly grinding their teeth in their sleep. If you notice that your kiddo is experiencing physical or emotional symptoms, you should speak with them, says Ellis. “You may notice changes in sleep, appetite, or irritability levels that could indicate your child is being affected by the current situation more than they let on,” says Ellis. “Try to be gentle and supportive; they have limited capacity for understanding and processing stuff like this and it often shows through behavioral changes.” As Ellis points out, your child isn’t trying to be difficult, but rather they just don’t know how to handle this scary situation.
Offer Them An Outlet
Although you might explain what’s happening in Ukraine and offer your child support, they still might struggle with their feelings. To give children an outlet for their fears, Ellis suggests creating a worry jar. “If you notice your child is seeming worried, you can offer them a special jar or box where they can put those worries, either in words, pictures, items, or with their voice,” suggests Ellis. “Limit the amount of time they spend doing this (5-10 minutes for very little kids, up to 30 for older elementary school kids) and then together decide where to keep the worry box/jar. It’s important to give their fears a voice so they can feel heard and supported.”
Talking to your child about what’s happening in the world (and particularly in Ukraine and Russia) might not be a quick convo. Take some time later in the day to check in with your child to see if they have any additional questions, suggests Palacios. “Just like adults, children may need some time to process and this provides an opportunity for us to check-in,” she says. “As the situation continues to unfold, keep checking in and following up periodically with updates, answering questions, and providing emotional support.”
The devastation that is happening in Ukraine is being felt by people all around the world. You can help quell the chaos that your kid might be feeling by learning how to talk to them about Ukraine. Not only will you be educating your child, but you might inspire them to help others until there’s peace once again.