Although the Russian invasion, for our kids, is playing out several thousand kilometres from home, social media and a glimpse at CNN can make it seem like it is all happening next door.
Tragic, frightening and violent images of the Ukraine are flooding TikTok and Insta reels. So, while your child may or may not be watching the news, they are certainly being exposed to the horror of yet another war. How do we talk about this when we feel overwhelmed ourselves?
Younger children have some basic questions when it comes to war, whether they verbalise them or not: “Am I safe? Are you taking care of me?” Older teens may want to know how will this affect their day-to-day life. As always, there are some fundamentals that hold true no matter the child’s age: For all ages, honesty is rule one. With that, here is our rough guide to some pretty rough questions.
- Make sure to answer THEIR question
To start with, always make sure you are answering their question, and not what you think they are asking.
For younger kids: A younger kid having picked up on a conversation at school may get in the car and say “What is a war?” Before launching into an answer about the Ukraine, check that they aren’t talking about a new online game!
When you ae sure they are talking about the Ukrainian war keep it simple – “War is like two big teams, usually countries fighting, only the one team doesn’t always want to be in the fight. In this case Ukraine doesn’t want to fight but Russia does”.
For teens and tweens: Older children may ask harder questions around the humanitarian nature of the war.
In keeping with honesty, we can say “I don’t know all the answers – I can tell you how I understand it.”
2. Put it in context – get out the map
For younger kids: For little ones always reiterate that the war is not in our country and that they are safe. For younger children it may be helpful for them to look at a map to compare where Russia and Ukraine are located to where they live to further illustrate how far from home this is happening, and that they are safe.
For teens and tweens: It is helpful to do a quick search on what natural resources Ukraine has so that they can begin to appreciate what Russia is trying to appropriate. It becomes far more understandable if they can see, for example, just how rich the country is in iron ore or gold.
3. Focus on hard facts and the good guys
While it’s important to tell the truth and to use real words like war, and death, it is also okay to keep the focus on the fact that there are lots of good governments taking action, humanitarian aid workers and volunteers on the ground doing all that they can to help people through the crisis. Both are true.
4. No false reassurances reflect and affirm their observations and powerlessness: “When will the war be over?” cannot be met with the glib answer ‘soon.’
For younger kids: Think about saying: “We don’t know when this war will be over, but we are safe here”.
For teens and tweens: There will be deeper questions, like “I feel so freaked out by what I saw on Insta, how do we know Russia won’t kill us too?”
Reflect and affirm their observations and powerlessness, by saying “Even though we are safe here, we all feel a bit helpless right now. But I am glad you are moved by these images. It means things that happen in the world matter to you”. Or simply, “Yes, you are so right – the Russian government is getting away with human atrocities and it is terrifying to watch. I am impressed by your choice to notice things beyond your immediate world.”
5. Make this a learning opportunity: we can’t take everything we see at face value
This is a great time to talk to older teens about how war is often fed by propaganda on both sides and fake news is rife at times like this. Teens are very alive to fake news so remind them to always ask “Is this all true or is some of this fake news?” The Klikd App has an entire module on fake news, helping our kids to discern fact from fiction, in interactive and fun ways for our kids, as well as conversation starters for parents and educators.
6. Pace your answers in line with what your child is actually curious about in that moment
Like with the birds and bees talk, answers to tricky questions have different levels of depth according to a child’s age and stage. Rather than give a whole political rundown (no tween or teen really wants everything to be a teachable moment), ask specifically what s/he would like to know about? Maybe a younger child is trying to make sense of an image of children being separated from parents and sent away on busses, or perhaps an older child saw clip on BBC that citizens have been given permission to make Molotov cocktails in their own homes! Either way, answer the question being asked in short simple terms. Older teens will find conversations around martial law most compelling!
7. Don’t let CNN move into your home as a permanent guest
At times like this we are inclined to let the news play constantly in the background – kids pick up imagery and words rather than meaning. The overload of what they are seeing and hearing creates the need for an internal filing cabinet for the visuals and audio clips – and needless to say the filing cabinet is opened at night, just before bed (when all scary monsters are released) or during sleep as nightmares. Only play the news when you are actively listening and the little ones are out of ear shot. Alternatively, with older teens listen actively together so that you can discuss what you have both seen and hear
8. Explain the war in terms of bullying
There is no doubt, no matter your political affiliation, that this is a war about bullying. No matter your child’s age, it is important to highlight how bullies exist at all levels of life and if we don’t stand up to them early on, they quickly learn that that they can exert their power.
For younger kids: For younger kids you might say “Has there ever been someone in your class who you have seen do ugly things to someone? What happens to the guy being bullied if the other kids don’t stand up for him? What happens if the teacher doesn’t stop him? Well, this is kind of the same. Unless we stand together against bullies, they get to carry on doing bad things.”
For teens and tweens: Older teens understand the concept of bullying, ask why they think people on the ground outside of the Ukraine are not taking a vocal stand. Ask what impact they believe indifference makes on the world. For conversation starters around being an upstander to bullying and managing cyberbullying, check out our Klikd App, which includes two modules on bullying for your t(w)eens as well as tons of conversation starters for parents and a Digital Citizenship curriculum for parents to handle these tricky topics.
9. Encourage real-time involvement!
Encourage older teens to ask themselves how they are showing up right now?
You might ask: “Are you just watching the reels of the war or have you decided to share some? What message are you hoping to put out there when you share? Do you think people of your age care more about this than my generation?
Help your teen to see that real time involvement is always preferable to being a passive bystander. Older teens can show support by:
- Volunteering to teach conversational English online to Ukrainians through an online volunteer organization
- Teens who love debating and public speaking can moderate a group discussion on Telegram or WhatsApp and Insta – the politically aware teens are loving engaging with like-minded teens across the globe on these issues and many online groups welcome new members.
- Raising political awareness in their schools by creating a protest or getting all pupils to sign petitions (there are tons online)
- Subscribing to the Week Junior, a weekly newsmagazine for kids ages 8-14 for brilliant teen friendly coverage of the Ukraine/Russia war.
10. If you do only one thing:
For many of our kids the first and only question is simply why is Russia fighting the Ukraine? With older kids you might put the answer back in their court – “What have you seen online, how do you understand it?” It is important to do this as it gives teens an opportunity to articulate both their confusion and their moral position on the issue. They are not looking for deep historical answers, they are looking for simple, one-line comments that make conversation possible!
As always, connection is key!
Encouraging talking, even its about war and even if it leads to battles over the dinner table is worth more than silence ever will be.
Sarah and Pam .