How to talk to your children about the war in Ukraine

By Leah Persky, PhD & CFLE, Family Life Education Manager

The news out of Ukraine is tragic. The senseless acts of violence perpetrated by a power-hungry dictator are ripping apart the lives of millions of people. The images we see of families and children and elderly people fleeing with their pets and luggage in tow is heartbreaking. The separation of families and uncertainty about the future looms large. It is hard to make sense of this – and hard to talk to children about it all. This is especially true for the many people with family connections to the region and those who are worried about the safety of loved ones. Parents are in a powerful position to help their children understand and navigate this important world event. It is hard and necessary work!

I firmly believe that the right thing to do when navigating important world events is to talk to our children about them. We know that school-aged children have heard about the event, whether at school or from friends or family. While our instinct may be to try to shelter our children from these horrible events, we know that in our information-laden world, this is not possible. Exploring important (and often heartbreaking) world events will certainly shape the way your child understands and interacts with the world around them. It is important to have these discussions and guide your child to think critically about the world, to be an empathetic global citizen, and to explore why democracy is so crucial to the well-being of our families and communities.

The maturity level and interest of the child should steer the conversations. A great way to start the conversations with any aged child is to ask them what they already know. They may know very little or have wrong information. You will want to gauge what they know before you begin.

The conversations may take just a few minutes, and they may happen before you are ready for them (as what occurred with my family when my 10-year-old came home asking about Ukraine because of what she heard at school). If the child is interested, this can be the beginning of a longer exploration of world history, politics, democracy, and identity. A map and curated content can go a long way to helping you lead these conversations in a thoughtful and focused way. Here is some helpful information and maps from the BBC to get you started: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60506298

For age-specific information for having these challenging conversations, see the following articles I have written. The articles provide guidance on challenging topics, with attention given to strategies for children of different ages:    

https://www.jfcsmpls.org/how-to-talk-to-your-children-about-the-immigration-crisis/    

https://www.jfcsmpls.org/what-parents-and-caregivers-can-say-and-do-in-response-to-the-tragic-killing-of-daunte-wright/

https://www.jfcsmpls.org/the-only-wrong-thing-to-say-is-to-say-nothing-resources-on-race-and-racism-for-parents-and-families-of-all-ages/

https://www.jfcsmpls.org/talking-to-kids-about-the-u-s-capitol-attacks/

While each of these situations is challenging in unique ways, your role as a parent is similar. Bring up the topics, create a safe space for discussion and make the child feel safe (as much as is possible). Let your child know you are there to talk more about this when they want to. If your child is not getting information they want from their family, they will certainly work to find it elsewhere.

Exploring ways to make a positive impact on the situation are also important. The ways that people can support those involved in the event will go a long way and can be empowering! Highlighting the safety of the child and family and the power of democracy are all important and related aspects to include in the conversation. 

Supporting these conversations with a healthy media diet for the entire family is crucial. Limiting the amount of time you and your family are absorbing information about these upsetting events will go a long way to supporting well-being. Once you reach a threshold of information, turn off the screens or radio. Limiting access to news and media within the home is key for your mental well-being and that of your children.

One thing that has resonated with me lately is the need to discuss the power of democracy to protect people and to limit the chance that things like this will happen in the future. A world without dictators is certainly a much safer place for children and everyone else! 

How can you engage your family in the processes of democracy? Letter writing to political officials; participating in protests on topics that matter to you; being aware of current events and politicians; and bringing your child to vote with you (in local and national elections) are all ideas on how to instill the power of democracy in your family. Children may also feel empowered to donate allowance money to causes that are close to their heart. There are many organizations working to support refugees from Ukraine right now, or supporting democracy-building efforts.

This all hits so close to home, as we know our democracy is facing its own challenges. If we all take action, we can create a stronger democracy together and this will make for a more peaceful and safer world for all.

In the meantime, keep paying attention, learning together, and having these important conversations about the world. Turning away and trying to shelter your school-aged children from major world events today is both outdated and impossible. Having these tough conversations together will create stronger relationships between family members and future caring adults. Together with empathy, understanding and hard work, we can raise our children to be powerful and peaceful stewards of our fragile world in the future.

For more resources about navigating challenging situations with your children, check out the following resources:

https://www.apa.org/topics/journalism-facts/talking-children

https://www.ncfr.org/resources/resource-collections/how-talk-children-about-tragedies

For further support, reach out to the Parent Coaching Program at JFCS. We can help you navigate how to have these important and challenging conversations with your family. To receive one-on-one tailored support, fill out the following form and we will be in touch with you soon:

https://www.jfcsmpls.org/parent-coaching-interest-form/