By Priscilla Greear
Disturbing images now dominate the mediascape as Russia invaded Ukraine and the world reacts with horror at the onset of a war that threatens to spread even further. The realities of war, even from afar, take a toll on adults. For children and young people, the impact may be even more devastating. Experts encourage parents to tune into their own child’s understanding and feelings, address their concerns and use the moment to teach about American values of democracy and fairness.
Could Russian President Vladimir Putin invade Miami? Inquiring young minds may (or may not) swirl with anxiety. Psychologists advise parents to check in with children of all ages to create space for age-appropriate discussions. Ask what they know about the conflict and listen for questions or worries. Look for subtle behavior changes.
If a child asks “Is this World War III?” it’s best to respond with other questions to identify what is truly worrying them, advises child psychologist Dr. Emily King in the New York Times. ”You could ask: ‘What do you mean by that?’” Validate those feelings and look for ways to help the child feel safer.
Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child development psychologist, affirms “our primary role, whenever our child is feeling extremely anxious about something that’s happening in the world, is to help them feel safe and heard.” For those children who do not seem to be interested, “You can say ‘look, I totally get it that you’re not interested in this moment, but if you are please come to me,’” states Dr. Silverman.
For children under 7, acknowledge the war and let the child lead the discussion while soothing any worries, said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist in an AP article. And Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said many fear safety or impact in daily life. “If the child asks if you are worried, be honest. You can say ‘yes I am, but we can manage this.’”
Teach the Moment
On pbssocal.org, Deborah Farmer Kris shares how she asked her 8-year-old child to find Russia on the globe and discussed Russia-Ukraine history basics. They discussed the phrase “war of choice.” “This is simply wrong, like it would be wrong for someone to break into his room and say all of this is mine,” Farmer Kris said. She reminded her children about their donation drive for Afghan refugees and showed a picture of Ukrainian refugees and of Russians protesting. “It was helpful that we’ve talked about refugees in age-appropriate ways for years.”
Guide the Conversation
Avoid a constant barrage of violent screen images. The Times article advises parents to discuss safe, vetted articles with children and guide them to reputable sources such as News-O-Matic and Newsela and NPR and HuffPost Teen. Then there’s DogoKidNews and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which offer several resources. The Week Junior shares facts in a calm tone to avoid frightening children to explain the conflict and US position, focusing on helpers and heroes.
Be the Helpers: Kids for Ukraine
Kids can channel the anxiety into care for Ukrainians, doing chores or donating to charities like Catholic Relief Services. “When kids are given the opportunity to assist others it gives them a feeling of agency, which can be comforting,” says Silverman.
Read to Care
Read picture books that expand young minds. Farmer Kris recommends “What is a Refugee?” or “Labna and Pebble.” “I believe in starting to mindfully build kids’ knowledge of the world at a young age and doing it in a way that fosters empathy and compassion.”
Disconnect and Play
CNN stresses the importance for kids to still take care of themselves, run outside and play. “In times when the world seems uncertain, kids can look to adults in their lives to learn the value of taking breaks and enjoying life.”
While there are plenty of resources and ways to help your children properly absorb and learn about difficult situations around the world like the Russia-Ukraine war, a parent’s guiding hand will always provide the best relief and sensitivity. Learn parenting communication skills from experts and share your experiences with other parents at The Children’s Trust Parent Club workshops, held throughout the county for free. The workshops are given in three languages – English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. Find a workshop and register at TheChildrensTrust.org/ParentClub.