War, suffering, invasion, displacement. Hard words that produce confusion and deep, deep feelings like powerlessness, fear and anxiety.
How do we talk with our children about this?
Here’s a short exercise for you, the grown up: take a piece of paper or your device and write the word war. Now look at the word war and write down all the concepts that come to your mind. No filters. Just write them down.
Done? Now look at your list of words. Is this what you want your child's brain to engage in now? All these difficult words you wrote down? What’s the message you want to pass along to your child? What is your objective as a parent when you talk with your child about war?
Many parents will answer this last question with something similar to “I want my child to know the facts”. You probably won’t hear a parent say “I want to scare my child, fuel their imagination, help them develop anxiety and have to end up with restless nights”. Here are some suggestions to help your child know the facts, without hurting their heart.
Pass along information, not feelings. Remember the brainstorming you did a few minutes ago? Your feelings are there. Look for them. They are yours, not your child’s. They belong to you so please, leave them there. You are a grown up, they are not. They can’t properly process them yet and they could lead to instilling fear, insecurity and anxiety in them. Your child is young. We want our children to process information and develop their own feelings. Freely. We don’t want them to think they need to feel what we feel, nor do we want to overwhelm them.
Talk simple and short. Imagine you are writing a dictionary. You are creating it and you need to explain the next concept, "What’s going on in Ukraine". You need to do this in the simplest shortest possible way. You are writing a dictionary, remember? For example: “There’s a war in Ukraine”, or “Ukraine has been invaded by Russia's army”. Don’t add feelings, just talk facts. The simplest ones, using the least amount of words, and stop. - Now wait.
Wait. Once you’ve initiated a conversation with your child by giving them the simplest, shortest piece of information you can, you need to stop and wait. Wait to see their reaction. Some kids will ignore what you said, some will say “Ok” and move on, and some will start asking questions. One question or one million ones. Your job is now to wait and see what their response is. Your side of the conversation is now suspended until further notice or you could be damaging your child by providing unsolicited information.
Don’t provide unsolicited information. If your child ignored what you just said or answered “Ok”, you can say something like “If you want us to chat about this, I’m here for you”, and leave it there. If and when they get curious about the situation, they will reach out to you, and if they are not asking questions now it's because they are not ready to cope with the answers yet. Whenever they are ready for more, believe me, they’ll ask.
If your child does ask questions, make it your objective to answer only what they are asking, in the simplest shortest manner, without adding any kind of unsolicited information or feelings (remember the list you had?). Why is this important? Because it’s the only way to protect your kids from becoming anxious (or more anxious). For example, if you said “Did you know Ukraine has been invaded?” and your child answered: ``Really?”, your safest reaction to this could be saying something like “Yep”. That simple. Now, you might be thinking something like “It's ridiculous to answer like this, it doesn’t add anything!” You are wrong. You are adding exactly what your child asked you for. They asked if Ukraine was indeed invaded and you answered yes.
We want in every answer we give our children, to add a very tiny little bit of information at a time to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of our children. If, hear me well, if they are emotionally ready to hear more, they will request more information. They’ll ask another question and you will answer, again, in the shortest simplest way adding very little new information. One drop at a time, to safeguard their hearts.
If we give too much, we risk hurting them but if we give too little, the risk disappears. They’ll just ask for more when they are ready for it.
Check in with your child. Take the time to frequently stop the conversation and ask your child “What do you think about this?” or “What are you thinking about?” It’s important to “take their emotional pulse” and discuss any feelings that arise openly and free of judgment.
“Play dumb”. When a child asks a complex question like: “What does the war look like?”, “What’s happening in Ukraine?” or “Who’s taking care of the children in Ukraine?”, we adults immediately picture the whole movie. A vast descriptive sequence of events that represents the answers to these questions. The thing is that most of the time our kids are not interested in “the whole movie”, they are interested only in one little frame (or a few) and if we screen the whole movie for them, we will totally miss their point and possibly overwhelm them. So, when our kid asks a complex question, our best bet always is to “play dumb” first: “What do you mean by…?” This forces the child to focus on the very aspect they are interested in and share it with us. Once this aspect has been addressed, then they might want to know more, and that’s perfectly fine. Just ask: “What do you mean by…?” again. Make sure you are answering to the point and therefore not giving potentially overwhelming unsolicited information.
You don’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes our children ask difficult questions which we are not sure how to answer or don’t know what to answer. That’s ok. We are humans, not-perfect by definition. We are not supposed to have all the answers nor all the answers immediately and it’s a great teaching opportunity when our children see this. It’s perfectly fine to say “I’m not sure about that, let me check it out and I’ll get back to you” or “Let me think about that one for a moment/while.” By doing this, you’ll be making sure you are giving them what they need, in the best possible way, and you’ll be acting as a great role model for them to learn to allow themselves to take time to think about what’s important to them.
We must initiate a conversation if our children haven’t done that yet. Our children are listening and watching and the conversation about Ukraine is in the air. Even if we think they are unaware of what’s going on, they probably are. Friends, hallway conversations, the media. The information is out there and our kids’ imaginations are in full swing. When they are young they mix reality with fiction and might create very scary scenarios. When they are older, they do it less, but they still do. Don’t we grown ups do it sometimes too? We must therefore approach the war subject with our children and make sure they get the information they can handle in the best possible way, and that we help them separate fiction from reality to make sure to keep their anxiety levels as low as possible. Don’t let YouTube and TikTok do your work. They are lousy parents.
Anxiety. Some of our kids might get anxious around the war subject and it’s totally reasonable. War is something they see in movies and read about and it’s definitely scary. Add to this their vivid imagination (or bright minds) and you might have kids asking “What if they invade us too?” or “What is going to happen to so and so, who lives in Ukraine?” I always suggest that we are honest with our kids. That we don't lie while we instill hope and tranquility as much as possible, without making promises we can’t keep. Again, using the shortest, simplest sentences we can. Answers like “I don’t see this event developing into a bigger issue but if it happens, we have a great system to defend us” and “There are plenty of organizations already helping the people who need it and we can support them too” are some good answers to give. Some kids will fear the war starting in their backyards. We need to calmly reassure them that we believe the possibility of that happening is miniscule and that we and our service people are here to protect them. They are not alone.
Talking about difficult subjects with our children is our responsibility. We must not forget that they are kids, that each of them is unique (different interests, capabilities, sensibility) and that our job is to help them navigate this world in the most effective way.
Please feel free to reach out to me if you need a bit more support.