How to talk about war with children and youths

The war in Ukraine is causing anxiety in adults as well as children and youths. The Child and Youth Helpline of MLL receives calls from children and youths who are afraid of war. Many of them have seen shocking videos of the victims of war in media and on social media platforms. They are dreading the possibility of war in Finland as well. Some parents are also very distressed by the situation.

Children and youths should not be left alone with their fears. We have also been contacted by children and youths of Russian background who have been bullied and discriminated against because of the war. It is thus important to discuss the war with children and youths at home and at school. It may also be necessary to discuss the situation at day-care centers, although small children should be protected against matters related to war. Parents and other nearby adults are now needed to create a sense of safety and hope. Here, MLL has compiled some instructions on discussing war with children and youths.

Start by asking how the child or youth feels about the situation

Before discussing the matter with a child or youth, try to calm yourself down as emotions can spread.

You can ask what the child or youth has seen or heard about the war in Ukraine and how they see the situation. Accept all thoughts and emotions of the child. Children are different and thus experience things differently. Do note that it is not always easy for a child to talk about their feelings. The child may not have access to concepts and words that would describe their worries. A child cannot analyze or process the things they hear or see similarly to adults. Allow the child time and space to talk about their experience in their own words and be prepared to listen.

Explain the matter in an age-appropriate manner

Explain what you know about the war in Ukraine to the child in a manner that takes their age into account. Accounting for the age of the child means talking about the matter using words and concepts that are familiar to the child. You should also check whether the child has understood what you have said. For example, you could ask the child to explain in their own words how they understood the things you told them. Allow the child time and space for questions.

The questions asked by the child reflect their way of understanding what has happened, and you should aim to answer them correspondingly. It is advisable to answer honestly and explain the facts briefly. The smaller the child, the more you should try to explain the events on a general level. You can let the child know that the matter involves conflicts between two countries, which are difficult for even adults to understand. With older children, you can explain the background of the situation in more depth. As youths may have a significant need for information, it is important to help them understand the situation.

Do not transfer your own anxiety

Avoid transferring your own fears onto the child or youth. Children are highly sensitive to the anxiety of adults. Only discuss the situation with your child after you have processed your own anxiety with another adult. You can let the child know that you are sad about the situation, but that we are not in danger here in Finland. Help the child understand and conceive that the matters discussed in the news are not threatening them. A child may not necessarily understand the distances or the nature of crisis, and their imagination may create threats that do not exist. Emphasize that the leaders of several countries are trying to find a solution to the situation right now.

Remember that each child is an individual

Some children and youths may be more responsive and react more strongly to everything that is happening around them and may thus need more calming words and reassurance. It is important to identify the specific thing the child or youth is scared or worried about, and how those worries could be alleviated. It is also completely normal if a child does not react to the situation in any way. Some children and youths process the matter through humor, for example by making jokes. Children and youths are entitled to their individual reactions.

In some cases, a child or youth may be burdened by so many personal worries that they are unable to focus on anything else.

Consider the background of the child or youth

War and news about war may be particularly distressing to children and youths who have experienced war or have close friends or family in Ukraine. Emphasize that the child is safe and that all efforts are being made to provide help to the people under threat. Explain to the child that Finland and other countries are welcoming Ukrainians and offering them shelter. The war is equally distressing to children and youths of Russian background, and as a result they may even feel shame or guilt. It is important to emphasize to them that they are not responsible for the situation in any way. Explain that they are entitled to feel proud of their roots and their identity. No one is allowed to bully or discriminate against them because of the war or for any other reason. Ask them to tell you if such things occur and contact the school or other authorities in that case.

Discuss the situation in a manner that respects other people

Emphasize the fact that the responsibility for starting a war always lies with the government and not the people. The war is causing suffering to both Ukrainians and Russians. Explain that there are children and youths of Russian background in Finland as well, and that they should be treated as kindly as anyone else. No one can be discriminated against or bullied because of their background. The children and their parents are not responsible for the war. Ask your child whether they have seen bullying or discrimination targeting people of Russian background, and if so, whether the situation has been intervened in. Encourage your child to treat everyone fairly. Do not transfer any negative attitudes or feelings you might have onto the child, and instead discuss these things with other adults when the child is not present.

Calm and provide security

If you notice that your child is frightened by something they see in the media or online, make sure that they are not forced to continue watching. Calm the child immediately by, for example, hugging or holding them and letting them know that they are safe. Explain the news to the child in a manner that takes their age into consideration. Stay calm. Even small children can sense when their parents are shocked or sad regardless of their words. When a parent is able to relay a sense of safety to a child, the child is relieved even if they are still afraid. If you yourself are deeply upset by the images your child has seen, you should postpone the discussion and think whether another adult close to the child could offer the security necessary.

Restrict access to social and other media

Explain to the child that restricting access to social media is beneficial for their protection and helps keep them safe from distressing content. News spread through social media can often be quite dramatic and are intended to shock. They do not always originate from reliable sources and instead the images used may be sourced from old news stories or even videogames. You should also avoid following the news or the media when a child is present. The smaller the child, the larger the need to protect them against news about crisis of all types. Do not watch or discuss the news where a child can hear you. With youths, restricting access to social media may be more difficult, but you should still discuss the harmful impact of media on one’s peace of mind with them.

Monitor the reactions of your child and return to the matter where necessary

It is advisable to discuss the situation again with your child if they appear worried or depressed, or if war constantly emerges in their dreams, discussions, games, or drawings. Older children may also discuss events that have made an impression on them with each other, and the stories they hear may lead to increased anxiety. Thus, you should keep an eye on the youths’ state of mind and provide the opportunity to discuss the matter. If a child or youth shows significant signs of anxiety that do not pass within days, you should turn to a professional (such as a nurse or school psychologist) and discuss how to tackle the situation together.

Create a sense of hopefulness and belief in the future

Emphasize to the child that even though the news depicts worrying events, there are also plenty of adults who are trying to resolve the situation at this very moment. Underline the fact that continuation of the war does not benefit anyone. Tell the child or youth that despite everything, there is less war and more wellbeing in the world, and that people are working to ensure this remains true. Create a peaceful atmosphere and maintain everyday routines. Be present and available for your child. Children and youths like spending time and doing things together. You can play boardgames, read a book, enjoy outdoor activities, do crafts, bake, or watch family movies.

Protect your own state of mind

You should avoid following the news or social media if they are causing you anxiety or fear. Share your thoughts and concerns with other adults. Look after yourself, continue to engage in activities, do things that are enjoyable. Activities, exercise, and focusing your attention on everyday chores can reduce anxiety. Seek help if you feel that you are unable to cope. Support is available to children, youths, and adults.

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