By: David Schonfeld, MD, FAAP
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.
Here are some suggestions to help you support your child in a constructive and helpful way.
Ask what your child has heard already
Start by asking your child what they already know. Many kids likely heard about the war in Ukraine and its regional and global impact. This information may come from TV, the internet, social media, school, friends or from overheard comments among adults. However, much of their information may not be accurate. Acknowledge confusion. You might explain that even adults do not know all that is going on—news reports can change quickly or provide conflicting viewpoints.
Respond with honest reassurance & don’t discount fears
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 may even attack the United States. They also have broader concerns about the financial impact the war may have here and the stress that may create for families.
Children may have some of these same concerns, but they often have very different ones, too. This is why it is so important that we ask them directly about their worries. Give honest explanations to correct misunderstandings or misinformation, but don’t ignore or minimize their fears. Help your child identify ways to cope with anxiety, sadness and fears rather than pretend that they don’t or shouldn’t exist.
The older the child is, 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.
Point out that people in the United States and elsewhere are taking active steps to try to improve the situation for Ukrainian citizens and to keep all of us safe. Children often look for reassurance that they’re safe after such graphic reminders of violence and conflict.
Avoid exposure to graphic images & repetitive media coverage
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 isn’t. They can trigger feelings of grief in children who have experienced the death of a friend or family member, even if unrelated to violence.
Consider this an opportunity to take a time out from television, computers and phones and come together as a family and community for discussion and support.
Recognize that some children may be at greater risk of distress
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.
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.
Stories from the war may be triggering for children who have themselves survived wars or other trauma, or whose families have experienced refugee status. Children who have had general challenges with anxiety or depression before the war are also likely to benefit from additional support at this time.
You may want to talk with your pediatrician, a teacher or school counselor or mental health professional for advice. Please remember that you don’t need to wait until you think they need counseling. Try to take advantage of counseling and support whenever you think it will be helpful.
More answers to the questions your children might have can be found at healthychildren.org