How to talk to children about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, especially if they’ve been through their own trauma
Philadelphia-area child development experts offer advice on how to discuss Russia's attack on Ukraine with children and teens.
Graphic images and footage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine aren’t easy for anyone to process, but they may be especially difficult for children and teenagers, particularly if they’ve experienced trauma or witnessed violence themselves.
Caregiver instinct may be to shield children from the violence unfolding on television and social media, but child psychologists advise acknowledging and discussing conflict, rather than ignoring it.
“Parents are a lot of times just very stressed about how best to feel they’re protecting their children and being nurturing,” said Stephanie Krauthamer-Ewing, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Drexel University.
“Our primary role as caregivers is first and foremost to provide an environment where children can feel safe and protected, and can talk about things that are difficult for them,” she said.
Here’s what to know about discussing the conflict in Ukraine with children:
Should I talk to my child about the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Use your best judgment, based on your child’s personality, interest in current events and personal experience to decide whether to engage in a conversation about Ukraine. Keep in mind that children may be aware of the conflict even if they seem too young to follow the news, said Darcy Walker Krause, executive director of the Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia.
At the same time, don’t push your child to talk if they seem resistant when you raise the subject.
“If they’re not interested in talking or don’t seem that concerned, I would drop it,” said Krause. “If they want to come back, they’ll know you’ve opened that door.”
How do I start a conversation about what’s happening in Ukraine with my child?
First, consider your child’s developmental stage. Teens and older adolescents may have heard and read about the situation or discussed it with friends or at school. Younger children may be more concerned about whether the violence they are seeing directly affects their own safety.
Families with large age gaps between children may want to have separate conversations with younger and older siblings.
Regardless of a child’s age, the goal of talking to them about the conflict is to ease concerns, clear up misinformation or confusion and answer questions.
“The most important thing to ground yourself as a parent is to remember that our children look to us for a sense of protection and security,” said Krauthamer-Ewing.
Resist the parental urge to be a problem solver. Instead, focus on listening to your child and let them guide the conversation.
For instance, you could try, “War is a really awful thing. Thankfully it’s not here in our country and I’m here to protect you,” she said.
One good way to break the ice is to ask if they have heard about what’s happening, what they think about it, and if they have any questions.
What should I tell my child about the conflict?
Stick to basic facts told with neutral language, recommends Nicole Fleischer, a clinical psychologist at St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Avoid language that creates this idea of ‘enemy’ and ‘bad person,’” she said. “Instead focus on bad actions, bad choices.”
Caregivers don’t have to pretend they don’t have opinions, she said, but you might consider keeping it to yourself — at least initially — to give children the opportunity to form their own thoughts and work out for themselves a sense of right and wrong.
Better yet, rather than focusing on giving them a rundown of what’s happened, let your child’s questions inform how much detail you discuss. For instance, a young child may not be aware that the images they’re seeing are very far from home — a detail adults may take for granted.
Help your child recognize and label their feelings by asking them what they are thinking about, how it makes them feel and why. This type of conversation can be empowering and therapeutic for children by giving them more control over how to recognize and express their emotions.
How do I respond if my child is upset about the conflict in Ukraine?
Children may express fear, confusion or even anger about what’s happening, especially if the news reminds them of violence or trauma they’ve experienced. Sudden moodiness, aggression or withdrawal among teens may be a sign they’re struggling to process what’s happening in the world. Young children may be more clingy than usual or become more upset than usual when separated from a parent, Fleischer said.
Normalize whatever feelings they may be having about the news by telling them it’s OK to feel sad, scared or angry.
Be sure to let them know that you are here to support them and help keep them safe.
Should I avoid talking about Ukraine with my child if they’ve previously been exposed to violence or trauma?
Research has found that children’s ability to cope with trauma is greatly improved if they are able to establish a strong attachment to an adult with whom they feel safe sharing their feelings. Children and teens who have witnessed or experienced trauma may respond more strongly to news about violence in Ukraine — or not.
“An older child with trauma may not react that strongly, given the violence they’re seeing on TV in Ukraine — they can separate this is a different place,” said Krause.
What’s most important is for caregivers to give children the space and platform to express whatever feelings or thoughts they want to share.
At the same time, clinicians agreed that limiting — not eliminating — exposure is a good idea. Graphic images and footage can be especially hard for children to process.
“If a child has experienced violence and trauma personally my first action would be to limit media exposure,” said Krause. “Given their experience, you can’t always promise 100% safety but you can limit your child’s exposure to seeing violence on others around the world.”
Be cautious, too, about social media — algorithms that boost exposure for popular images or clips may bring the news to your child’s social media feed even if it is not the type of post they would normally click.