Unsure how to talk to your child about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Senior Clinical Psychologist, Dr Jo Temple, gives us her advice
As news of the conflict in Ukraine enters our homes, your child might be feeling anxious, sad or even a bit scared.
They might turn to you for reassurance. But we know that these are uncertain times, and it’s probably weighing on you too.
It can be difficult to find the right words or know how to approach the situation.
We spoke to Dr Jo Temple, Senior Clinical Psychologist at Adoptionplus, which is part of the Barnardo’s family, about how to talk to children about the conflict in Ukraine.
Here is her advice:
Younger primary school-aged children need a story which makes sense. A vital part of that story should be that there are world leaders and experts who are working hard to find a way to end the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the safest way possible.
Older primary school-age children and pre-teens may be curious about the details and history of the conflict. Reliable children’s news sources and maps are a good starting point, which you can explore together. This will help you pick up any specific fears, or worries, including misinformation, that your child might be holding.
If you have teenagers, it is also helpful to start by looking at a range of reliable news sources that you trust. It is important though to give your teenager the opportunity to share their own knowledge and thoughts with you. This gives you the chance to show them you are interested and open to their ideas.
Ask a few open questions, like ‘What do you think about that?’, ‘Where did find out about that?’. Teenage brains can move very quickly into a feeling of being judged, criticised, and not understood. Using your tone of voice and facial expression to show that you are open and engaged may help.
But it’s also important to allow space for any difference in opinion or understanding between you, as they might need to use the conversations with you to work through their complex thoughts and ideas.
With children of all ages, you can also explore the many examples of human compassion and generosity that we are seeing in the ways that people all over the world are responding to the crisis.
Give them space to express their thoughts and feelings
You may be concerned about the impact on children and teenagers. Or perhaps you’re worried about saying too much or too little, or the wrong thing, when talking at home.
What is important is to provide space for children and young people to acknowledge, express and share their feelings and questions.
You certainly don’t have to have all the answers. But you can give them the clear message that whatever they are thinking and feeling, you have the time and headspace to listen.
The importance of connection
Whatever their age, children need to know that their questions and worries are taken seriously, so it’s important not to avoid difficult or uncomfortable questions.
If there isn’t an easy or immediate answer, you can validate their questions and show them you are taking them seriously by saying something like, ‘That’s a really important/ interesting/ useful question, let’s think about it together’, or ‘I’ll do my best to answer or find out’.
Children will feel safer, not by hearing false reassurances, but by feeling the connection with you as a safe adult who they trust. This conversation is an opportunity for quality connection - so really look at your child and do your best to stay in the moment with them.
If they feel you are really focused on the moment with them, it will help them to feel that although things are frightening and unpredictable, you are there, and they can rely on you. You can tell them that you feel sad too, that these are shared feelings.
Find out what they know already
Depending on their age, stage and access to information, children may already know a lot about the conflict.
Our minds, particularly children’s minds, are natural story makers, so if your child has some information but not enough for the story to make sense, their creative mind might jump in and fill the gaps. This can sometimes lead them to an even more frightening conclusion.
So, start with finding out what they already know so that you can help fill in any gaps and provide them with enough information that the story makes sense.
Talk to them about what they are seeing, what is being said at school and on social media and what they have watched or read on the news. We may not be able to predict or control world events, but we can rely on being able to talk and listen to each other.
There may be questions or gaps in your mind too – in this case, you can wonder out loud together, for example, ‘Yes, I’m wondering how long this will go on for too’ – so that you can be ‘in it together’ and your child isn’t left with the feeling that something is being hidden from them, which can be frightening in itself.
You can look facts up together and show them safe and reliable news sources. You might look at a map together and talk about the countries around the world taking steps to stop the conflict.
Take an open and curious attitude
Take an open and curious position around what your children might be thinking, feeling or wondering about.
Younger children and children who have experienced a lack of safety in their lives are likely to be particularly alert to the feeling of danger and threat to themselves and their family.
Other children might feel less anxious but may feel deep empathy on behalf of those suffering in the conflict. Some young people may feel moved to action and you can talk to them about their thoughts and ideas around supporting those in need, or towards a wish to make the world a better place in another way.
Finally, some children and young people won’t want to talk, but they might want to explore and express feelings in other ways – e.g. through music, art, play and writing.
In this case, the same applies and you can find ways to show that you are open, engaged, interested and curious in their experience and that you can provide space for them to show you how they are feeling and what they might need from you.
If you feel overwhelmed by the level of distress you or your child is experiencing, then please do seek support from those in your support network or from professional support services.
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