Talking to Children About War
How do you explain the bombing and killing of civilians - as well as soldiers, for that matter - to children?
The complexity of war is hard enough for us adults to understand, but for a child whose world is filled with innocence, such catastrophic events are incomprehensible. In light of the invasion of Ukraine, all the news pouring in through the media, children all over the world are being exposed to this frightening news. It all comes down to how we, as their parents and role models, communicate to them.
When social media and television are on 24/7 kids see everything. The very way we talk to our children about wars and conflict can assuage their fears and empower them with feeling safe.
In fact, when it comes to talking to children about war, we are also in a way helping them through some of the first trauma they might ever experience. We can use this as an opportunity to help bolster their psychological defenses in the future.
Children respond to trauma in different ways. Some have an immediate reaction, while some become greatly affected a few weeks after. In the same sense, some are behaviorally affected and some aren’t. Children are just like any other people - they are all different. Early exposure and response to the horror of war is basically early exposure and response to the trauma itself. So the grown-ups have to keep a lookout for symptoms as such.
Knowing the signs that are common can help parents and teachers so they can respond appropriately. If they are young: are they crying more than usual, behaving clingier than usual, or suffering sleep disruptions? If they are middle school to high school age, are they changing their routine in a troubling manner? Are they less happy, less talkative, or seemingly unable to focus? These can be the signs of a trauma response.
Firstly, how to ease the nerves of little ones around ages five to seven?
Help them feel safe and secure. Read to them, feed them, let them sit on your lap if it makes them feel better; essentially spend quality time together to help them feel safe and secure. In fact some variance in these techniques (showing compassion, comforting activities) works for children of all ages.
If they can talk and listen then explain that war is happening far away. Clear up misunderstandings, and reassure them that they’ll be fine.
What about older kids in middle school or high school?
A lot of times older kids have more of a stalwart defense against things like conflict on the news but it can still affect them. In addition, they might feel uneasy but they are at an age where they may be less likely to talk to you about it. Teenagers these days spend their time on social media and talking to friends at school. Adolescents are largely integrated into their peer group, so make sure to observe how they seem to be doing. Keep an eye on whether they change their routine, or become more irritable than usual.
Find out where your kids’ minds are at. Sit down with them, talk to them about how they feel about the happenings in the world. They might not readily confide in parents as much as friends at this phase so it may not be easy, but at least let them know you’re here for them.
If you know your kid is having a hard time with this it may be a good time to reinforce family values, teach about anti-violence, and send positive messages. Tell them the truth but don’t overwhelm them with too much info. Only what they’re ready to hear about, and age/maturity level will determine this.
Do’s and don’ts
There are a few hallmarks to stick to when talking to children about war or similarly traumatic conflicts. Stick to the facts, limit the gory details, also limit media exposure, and don’t try to predict what will happen. This way if something else transpires, no trust is lost. Keep from spreading stereotypes - for example, you can say “these aren’t all bad people, it’s more complicated than that.” Watch with them if they’re going to watch the news and are old enough. Younger kids should be exposed to little or no media concerning the news at all.
If they feel like they want to help, encourage compassion. It will give them something positive to focus on. Maybe donating to affected civilians, or sending a package to those in need will help their emotional response.
Something as simple as setting up a neighborhood lemonade stands to raise money for refugees, food, etc. teaches them character. This volunteerism teaches how they can control things that are in their power to control, in a constructive hopeful way.
Highlight the good people involved, like doctors and rescue efforts. The closer they feel to an idealized object like people who are doing good things, the more it reinforces positive aspects of their psychology.
Some children are more vulnerable than others.
If you notice a change in behavior or routine to a point of dysfunction then perhaps it’s time to seek professional help. School counselors, child therapists, and child psychiatrists can help your kid to see the positive side of things and not be overly affected by the problems our world faces today.
If your child is having serious mental health struggles as a result of world conflict or other troubling news, you can reach out to Bregman Medical Group. We have decades of experience working with children on a wide range of disorders and issues. We offer online psychiatry and therapy, simply schedule an appointment online at www.bregmanmd.com or call 786-321-4909.