How to talk to children about the war in Ukraine

  • Refugee families await a train at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine.

    Refugee families await a train at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine. Associated Press, March 22

  • Dr. David Schonfeld

    Dr. David Schonfeld

 
By Dr. David Schonfeld
American Academy of Pediatrics
Posted4/16/2022 7:00 AM

The war in Ukraine is distressing to all of us. Children and teens are wondering what has happened and what may happen next. Like adults, they are better able to cope with upsetting news and images when they understand more about the situation.

Start by asking your children what they already know. Many kids likely have heard about the war. This information may come from TV, the internet, social media, school, friends or from overhead comments among adults, but much of it may not be accurate.

 

As children explain what they know about the situation, listen for misunderstandings or frightening rumors. Acknowledge confusion. You might explain that even adults do not know all that is going on.

Adults are concerned about many aspects of the crisis, such as the safety and well-being of civilians in Ukraine. They worry about whether Russia might use nuclear weapons or even attack the United States. They also have broader concerns about the financial impact the war may have here.

Children may have some of these same concerns, but they often have very different ones, too. This is why it is so important to ask them directly about their worries. Give honest explanations to correct misunderstandings or misinformation, but don't ignore or minimize their fears. Help your children identify ways to cope with anxiety, sadness and fears rather than pretend they don't or shouldn't exist.

The older children are, the more discussion they may need to answer their questions and address their concerns. Begin by providing the basic information in simple and direct terms. For example, explain how the war is likely to impact them and their family personally. Then ask if they have any questions.

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It's helpful for children to know enough to feel they understand what has happened. But exposure to graphic images, massive amounts of information or continuous and repetitive media coverage is not helpful.

A Ukrainian police officer helps a child seek shelter as artillery echoes nearby, while fleeing Irpin on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian police officer helps a child seek shelter as artillery echoes nearby, while fleeing Irpin on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. - Associated Press, March 7

Children and teens understand and react to distressing events differently based on their developmental age and unique personal experiences. Some children will feel the impact more than others and may need more help coping. Obviously, if children have family or friends in Ukraine, this war will feel very close to home. But children with no personal relationship to Ukraine or its people may also be at risk of troubling reactions.

For example, children who live in communities with high rates of violence may become more concerned about their own physical safety. Those who are part of communities that have experienced racial bias and discrimination may feel a rise of distress and anger when hearing about acts of aggression and bias in Ukraine. Children who have experienced poverty or food insecurity may feel anxious hearing stories of families with limited food or money for other basic necessities.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Children and teens are likely to ask a number of questions in times of crisis and upheaval. Choose answers that provide honest information and helpful reassurance.

When a war results in this amount of death and destruction, it is natural to be upset. However, if children continue to be very upset for several days, seem unable to cope with their fears or are having trouble in school, at home or with their friends, it is a good idea to speak with someone outside the family for advice. You may want to talk with your pediatrician, a teacher or school counselor, mental health professional or member of the clergy for advice.

• Dr. David Schonfeld is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children's health is a continuing series. To check out more information about the American Academy of Pediatrics, visit healthychildren.org.

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