Talking to Children About War
In light of the current war in Ukraine I want to share a resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network about how to talk to children about war, and emphasize a few points that I think may be especially relevant for TCKs and their families.
First, make sure your child understands the context: The article points out that young children seeing or hearing coverage of a war or listening to parents discuss a war might not understand that it is not happening in their community. Many of the families I work with live in areas where war and conflict are not too far away, so that might make it even more likely for children to be confused. Young children also don’t know how historically common or uncommon a situation like what is happening in Ukraine is. They may not understand how near or far they are from the danger, or how likely such a situation is for them and their family. If you are living far away from this situation, and if such a situation is relatively unlikely in your location, hearing this may be reassuring.
Start the conversion: Bring it up first because kids and adults often react to fear by avoiding the topic and trying not to think about it. You can find out what kids are worried about by asking what they already know, how they are feeling about it and by asking what questions they may have about this. You could ask questions like these: “What do you know about this war in Ukraine? What have you heard about it?
Validate feelings and realistically reassure: You can reassure your child without minimizing their big feelings by recognizing where their emotions come from and then giving information about their safety. First ask about how they feel when they think about the situation or hear about it. “What kind of feelings do you have when you hear about this?” Then you can validate their feelings and reassure them with accurate information by saying something like, “You may feel sad and scared because what you heard about really is dangerous and bad, but you don’t have to be worried about what will happen to you because this is happening far away.” Be prepared to be concrete; a young child might need to see a globe or think in terms of how many hours flying it would take to get to the affected area before they really understand.
Give relevant age appropriate information: When you understand how your child is connecting with the situation, you can give information relevant to what they are thinking and feeling about the situation. You can correct any misunderstandings they have. It may be useful to compare and contrast your local situation with that of Ukraine.
If your case is similar enough that you have evacuation or other contingency plans, at an age appropriate level, you can explain them. Children may want to know in detail what will happen if… For example, “What will we do with our cat if we have to evacuate?” If you don’t have an answer, you can let them know that you appreciate that they brought up that detail and you will work on a plan for that, asking for their ideas if appropriate.
For example in a country with a potential for armed conflict: “It’s possible that our country/town could get unsafe at some point because of people fighting. We would leave then and go somewhere safe. Since it could happen quickly we have a packing list/packed bag/packed car with some of our most important things to take and a plan for how we will travel. We have friends who will tell us if it is time to go. What questions do you have about that? You can always ask me about something you’re wondering or worried about.
For a location where there could be a natural disaster evacuation needed: “It’s not likely that there will be war here. There isn’t a country who wants to take over this one, but we could have a flood/fire/volcano/tsunami/hurricane and so if we have to leave because of that, our plan is… Do you have questions now about our safety plans for that?
Take some kind of action to move forward: When they understand their safety status relative to this problem, and they understand (if they’re curious) what your safety plans are about this or other dangers that may have come up, then it’s time to move on. A good way to pivot is to share about how people are caring for those caught up in the conflict. Then you can ask them if they would like to pray for the people suffering and research together how they might be able to help the people suffering practically in some way. For example, you may want to donate together through a serving organization that your family has a connection to.
The National Traumatic Stress Network article covers some other very helpful tips such as how to foster resilience in children, how adults can speak, what to consider and how to handle media coverage exposure. And in a related article describes how trauma (whether it happens to them or they hear about it happening to others) can impact children’s emotions and behavior.
If your child has suffered a traumatic event or seems to be suffering from exposure to trauma, you can wait and see if their symptoms will improve in one month after the event. If they do not, one month is long enough to wait. Children can and do get PTSD. It usually doesn’t get better on its own, but a therapist trained in working with children suffering PTSD can help them get back to feeling and acting like themselves again. Early intervention makes for a much quicker recovery.