How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Kids: The War in Ukraine
By Moe Gelbart, PhD, Director, Behavioral Health
As the pandemic has started to turn the corner, we thought we could breathe a sigh of relief. Our children’s routines seem mostly back on track. Mask mandates in schools are ending, extra-curricular activities seem to have fully returned, the school year looks like it will completed with minimal interruptions, and summer vacations are once again being planned. And then…. Russia invaded Ukraine, a war is raging, and concerns and fears of things worsening fill our TVs and social media feeds all day. What do our children know, how do they feel about what is going on, and how should we discuss this with them?
Children at different developmental stages and ages react differently to what is going on, but you can be sure that even children as young as five have been exposed to the crisis on some level. We would like to believe they are shielded from the terrible news, but they are aware that something is not right, and the older they are the more information they have. If they have any questions or stated concerns, we should be able to discuss the situation with them, but even if they do not bring it up, we can be fairly certain that thoughts and feelings are swirling around inside of them. In general, the major source of anxiety is fear of the unknown and providing your children an outlet to discuss their concerns will greatly reduce their anxiety. There are several reasons why you should talk to your children about Ukraine:
- They are already hearing about it, from friends, TV, social media, and can pick up on your conversations you are having. They have the exquisite ability to hear your anxieties and fears, and then, without information, can catastrophize the situation.
- In regards to above, you can provide clear information, and help them avoid misinformation.
- It is an opportunity to help them understand difficult emotions, and to help them normalize such feelings. Acknowledging, accepting, and knowing how to talk through painful or scary thoughts is much preferred to burying them or acting like they don’t exist.
- It will help them develop empathy and concern for others, and to recognize that we live in a global community and different people have different challenges.
How should you deal with your children’s concerns about the situation in Ukraine?
Be open and honest. Whether they ask you questions about it, or you sense them concerned or curious, always be honest with them. Naturally, provide the information in ways they can understand and in a form they can emotionally handle. Ask them questions, including what they know, and what they feel.
Validate Feelings. It is essential to listen to how they feel, and to validate their feelings. Validation is something like “I can understand why you are scared if you think things like that can happen here”. It is not agreeing with the perception, but respecting their point of view. With validation, a parent can then reassure their child providing a measure of emotional safety. Because we want our children to not suffer, we often are prone to saying things like “you shouldn’t feel that way”. Although the intent is one of caring and concern, it can often lead to children doubting and not trusting their feelings and then be reluctant about sharing them. If your child is very young, and raises a question, it is likely they cannot identify their feelings well, and we need to verbalize it for them. For example, if they ask “where is Ukraine”, you might say “you sound a little worried when you ask that”. Then validate, and inform.
Monitor your TV time. It is important to regulate your intake of news, and minimize or eliminate (based on age) what or how much they see. Even if you think they are not watching, they can feel your anxiety and hear everything you are talking about with your friends and family. The goal is not to completely shield them from the news, but monitor the time and the content and most importantly, allow some time to talk about feelings, thoughts, and reactions.
Normalize their feelings. Similar to validating their feelings, it is important to let them know having difficult thoughts and emotions is part of life. It is a sign of being emotionally present and functioning and not something for them to avoid at all costs. Letting them know many people share their concerns helps them to feel that something is not wrong with them.
Consider helping them make positive choices. Depression and anxiety often arise out of a sense of helplessness. If your child is thinking about the situation in Ukraine, it can feel overwhelming to them and they can feel like there is nothing they can do. This sense of helplessness can be an opportunity for growth and a lesson in controlling things they can and letting go of things they can not control. Help them explore ways they can address their concerns, letting them know anything they do is important. They can save their allowance or forego gifts or set up a lemonade stand and donate money to the Red Cross or other organization. They can write a letter of their concern to their local lawmakers. If they feel the problem is too big, you can share my favorite parable with them:
Once upon a time there was an old man who used to walk along the ocean every morning. One morning after a huge storm, the beach was littered with starfish as far as the eye could see. As he walked, he saw a boy way off in the distance who was bending down and doing something. As he got closer, he saw the boy was throwing starfish into the ocean and asked him what he was doing. The boy replied, “the tide has washed them onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die unless I throw them back into the water”. The old man sighed and said, “there are tens of thousands and I’m afraid you won’t be able to make a difference”. The boy bent down, picked up a starfish and threw it far into the ocean. He turned, smiled and said, “I made a difference to that one”.
Help your child find ways to make a difference and in doing so, they will feel empowered and good about themselves.