With the escalating war in Ukraine dominating our news, social media feeds and conversations, many of us are feeling overwhelmed and worried. But it can be easy to forget that the children in our lives will also be aware of the news – to different degrees depending on their age and exposure to media – and will understandably have their own concerns or questions about it. Here we’ve compiled our 5 top tips for how to speak with children about difficult topics in age-appropriate, comforting and empowering ways.
1. Make time to listen
While we don’t want to bombard children with news or scary images, it’s important to be aware of how much they pick up anyway, and to recognise that their interpretation of events might be very different to what you know to be the facts of the situation. Give children the space to talk when they want to – even if you’re in the middle of something else – and encourage them to tell you what they know, how they feel and to ask you questions.
2. Be honest
Without causing unnecessary alarm, give honest, simple answers to the child’s questions. Fred Rogers once said ‘Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable’. Helping straighten out garbled facts picked up in the playground may actually give the child a clearer sense of what is happening and make it feel more manageable.
3. Validate & reassure
“Will there be a world war?” Do we know the answer? No. Can we respond in a way that feels safe to children in our care? YES! “This is a big question. I wonder if you’re feeling a little bit scared? If you are – that’s normal. I feel scared too. I don’t know the answer (honest – see Tip No. 2!) but I know we are safe right now. What would help you feel safe tomorrow when this question pops up in your head again? What can I do?” (With thanks to Dr Martha Deiros Collado for this one whose Instagram account is a really helpful resource for anyone working with children.)
4. Expand their understanding, deepen their empathy
The children of today will be the world leaders of tomorrow, so use this opportunity to help nurture character traits like kindness and fairness. Reflect back to children the qualities that their questions or concerns are demonstrating. Books are a great way to open up younger children’s understanding of the world and foster empathy. Here are three picture books about refugees that can help children get a better understanding of this and other conflicts around the world:
When a strange-looking animal arrives pulling a big suitcase, the other animals are curious. What on earth could be inside that suitcase? A teacup? Maybe. A table and chair? Perhaps. A whole home and hillside with trees? This stranger must be fibbing! But when the animals break into the suitcase and discover a very special photograph, they begin to understand what the strange creature has been through, and together they create a very special welcome present . . .
In this simple, graphic and bold picture book for young children, author/illustrator Elise Gravel explores what it means to be a refugee. This book is the perfect tool to introduce an important and timely topic to children.
In an unforgettable story that subtly addresses the refugee crisis, a young girl must decide if friendship means giving up the one item that gives her comfort during a time of utter uncertainty.
5. Find practical, appropriate ways to help
Faced with the enormity of a situation like this, it can be very difficult to feel that anything we do will make a difference. But finding ways to help children act on their caring impulses can be very empowering. Appropriate activities you could support children with might include joining a local peace protest, or doing a micro-fundraiser (e.g. sponsored read/bake/walk) and donating to a charity of their choice which is helping practically with the situation.
And finally, a bonus tip for taking care of YOU:
6. Avoid ‘doomscrolling’
It can be hard to maintain a sense of calm when discussing conflict with children if you’re following a news story very closely yourself. By keeping yourself mentally and physically healthy, you will be much better placed to respond positively to those in need in the world around you. Stay informed, stay healthy and take practical action where you can.