We chat with a child psychologist about her top tips on answering your kids’ questions about the Russia-Ukraine war. Also, we list some ways you can help the people of Ukraine.

It was inevitable that the topic would be raised. On our morning drive for school drop-off one morning, the 9am news bulletin came on.

“Russian forces have invaded Ukraine,” the newsreader announced before I could change the station.

“Mummy, what’s happening?” my five-year-old asked. “I want to keep listening.”

Fuelled partly by my own need to know what was happening and partly by a belief that I should get in on the conversation with my son first, I kept the news on. We continued listening to the report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine—interrupted often by my son’s multiple questions.

I don’t need to list my son’s questions since, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably fielding the same ones from your own children.

Children are asking questions

For the next few days, my son continued to ask questions about the Russia-Ukraine war. These mostly came from a place of curiosity, although some have led to further philosophical discussions about things like respect, greed and a person’s moral responsibility.

A week later, with everything else happening in his life, I’m not surprised his five-year-old mind has wandered off to think and ask about other topics.

If you have older children however, you probably have not had the luxury of distraction. Social media and playground talk mean your kids are exposed to the conflict, regardless of how much you may be trying to shield them at home.

This will especially be challenging if the topic is causing your child stress or anxiety. So how do you talk to your children about the Russia-Ukraine war?

Handle conversations about the conflict age-appropriately

Deirdre Brandner is a child psychologist based in Melbourne. Her first advice is to approach the topic age-appropriately.

Watch our full interview with Deirdre on how to talk to children about the Russia-Ukraine conflict below.

“For children aged four and under, unless they actually ask you what’s going on, we don’t need to go into any detail,” she says.

If they do ask, answer their questions as simply and directly as possible. Don’t provide too much information or detail as children will struggle to understand complexities.

Talking to children about the Russia-Ukraine war

It is important to allow children the time and opportunity to have a discussion about the issue. However, there are five things to keep in mind when talking to them about what’s happening in Ukraine.

1. Don’t call it a war

Deirdre suggests referring to the situation as a “conflict” because the concept of war for children can be very overwhelming.

Also, be mindful that “language such as bombing, invasions and world war 3 can be anxiety provoking”, says Deirdre. “It’s important that children understand this is very rare and doesn’t impact them.”

2. Show them where Russia and Ukraine are geographically

Get a map out and point out to your children where exactly Russia and Ukraine are, especially in relation to where they are. This will come in helpful especially in dealing with their fears and concerns, as we will explore later.

“The news media has made everything feel really close,” says Deirdre. As a result, some children have extrapolated that they are going to war or that Australia will be Russia’s next target. “Make it clear that Australia is safe. You can say something like, ‘We are not involved and are not going to war’.”

3. Contextualise the conflict

In simple terms, explain to them the conflict is related to countries not getting along, which has escalated into one country seeking to take over another. People are hurt in the process and have to leave their homes.

However, while children need to have an emotional understanding of what’s happening, it can be inappropriate to encourage them to step into someone else’s shoes in this instance. Instead, approach the conversation from their worldview.

“[Explain to children] that it’s a bit like someone who is bigger and stronger being unkind to another person,” Deirdre suggests. “So everybody else is trying to stick up for the other person as we don’t think what’s happening is fair.”

Using this example, children are able to feel empathy without being overwhelmed.

4. Shift the focus to helping Ukraine

Acknowledge and recognise there is a global outcry about what’s happening in Ukraine; that people are horrified and saddened. It helps to “develop the desire for peace and an appropriate moral compass”, says Deirdre.

Talk to your children about people helping financially, countries taking in refugees and others who are removing Russia’s “privileges to play” (in the form of sanctions).

Be mindful that some children can take it to the next level, coming up with drastic solutions to punish Russia. (My five-year-old has suggested punching Vladimir Putin, much to my horror.) Deirdre suggests acknowledging their strong sense of justice, while gently reminding them that there are organisations around the world who are doing something about it.

To contextualise the conflict, it will be akin to why they should let an adult they trust know about a bullying incident and not try to fix it themselves.

5. Have a break

While it’s important to talk to your children about the conflict, it’s also not helpful for it to be the only topic of conversation. “With everything that’s happening—COVID, the floods—we need to find a balance,” Deirdre says.

What to do if your child is worried about the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Some children are happy to simply know the facts about what is happening. Then there are others who will develop feelings of anxiety surrounding the conflict. Make sure you listen to and address those fears, while helping them to feel safe and secure.

Deirdre has suggested 5 ways you can help if your child is worried about the conflict.

1. Help them understand the nature of news and media

Children can often be impacted by the horrific stories they’ve heard or the shocking images they’ve seen. Help them realise while there are terrible things happening from the conflict, that the news media tend to focus on those—and often on repeat. We can also help by making sure the news isn’t on all day.

Constantly seeking information on the conflict can lead us down a rabbit hole, impacting our mood. Turn the radio and TV off and encourage your children to go offline. Stop discussing the issue for a while.

2. Identify what is driving the worry and if there is evidence to support it

Get your child to break down exactly what is causing them fear and concern. Then help them explore if there is any evidence to support them feeling that way.

“This is the same for dealing with any fear. Recognise the feeling and thought, then find the evidence,” says Deirdre. “Get them to articulate what is it that they’re really worried about. Then give them the logical reasoning as to why it won’t happen.”

3. Stick to the facts

While we think giving our children as much information as possible is helpful, going into too much detail can sometimes be counterproductive. You can be honest with your children, while putting a boundary around how much they really need to know.

4. Normalise their feelings

Help them realise what they’re feeling is perfectly normal—even admit you’re feeling them yourself. Talk about “big feelings” because it could range from fear and sadness to anger.

“It’s important for children to identify the same feelings in their parents,” says Deirdre. The key she says, is helping them make the distinction between feeling bad and sad, and believing what’s happening will happen to them.

Next, model to your children how you’re not letting these “big feelings” restrict your ability to get on with your life and day-to-day functions.

5. Monitor their social media use

Many children are getting their information from social media. Be mindful of what they’re consuming and help them to be discerning.

Signs parents should watch out for to know if your kids aren’t coping

Some children will keep their fears and concerns to themselves, so look for changes in their behaviour. This includes being:

  • More irritable
  • More teary or clingy
  • Worried about things they’re not usually worried about

Older children can also become:

  • More withdrawn
  • Grumpier
  • More non-verbal

To encourage your child to open up, Deirdre suggests acknowledging your own fears and concerns first and waiting for them to respond.

If our children aren’t talking about it, should we ignore the issue?

As parents, we’d like to think we are shielding are children from further upset by not pointing out the issue to them if it’s not on their radar. However, Deirdre advises, “If you have a child who is at school, you need to have the conversation. They are going to hear about it.”

By bringing up the subject first with these children, you are able to provide them with information where you can positively influence the outcome. As Deirdre puts it, it’s information that will be “honest, have boundaries around it and without the horrific details or violence”.

How to help Ukraine

It’s a natural (and beautiful) human reaction to want to help when we hear about atrocities such as what is currently happening in Ukraine.

And while being so far away can be a comforting thought for worried children, we can also feel helpless about not being able to do more.

“Just feeling bad for Ukraine and wanting to help is a sign that we are good people,” says Deirdre.

At the same time, donating money is probably the most practical and immediate thing you can do right now. Teaching children about the value of giving also goes a long way to helping them think beyond themselves.

Organisations on the ground helping Ukrainians include:

  • ADRA: providing urgent humanitarian aid in Ukraine including water, food, shelter, blankets and clothing. Also working in surrounding countries, including Poland, Romania and Hungary, as they prepare to respond to the needs of incoming refugees.
  • UNICEF: trucking safe water to conflict-affected areas and prepositioning health, hygiene and emergency education supplies as close as possible to families near the contact line.
  • Save the Children: providing children and families with immediate aid, such as food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support and cash assistance. 
  • UNHCR: ensuring that those who are forced to flee their homes in Ukraine are sheltered and safe.

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