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How to Talk to Your Kids About the Crisis Unfolding in Ukraine

people protesting supporting Ukraine

Michael M. Santiago / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The current war between Ukraine and Russia may be frightening and confusing to children.
  • Talking to your kids about the war can help them process it and open lines of communication.
  • Welcoming their emotions, providing accurate information, and showing kids how they can help are ways to help them process the war.

With the onset of war in Ukraine following Russia's unprovoked invasion, kids may see disturbing images and videos on TV and social media or hear about the possibility of World War III.

As a parent, you may be wondering how to help your children process the situation. Nick Koontz, MS, LMFT, marriage and family therapist and director of wellness programs at Boys & Girls Clubs in LA, says the circumstances can be used as a touchpoint with children. 

“It’s a brand-new thing that today’s parents have never had to really explain to their kids in terms of a war that is so in their face…If lines of communication or bonds weren’t already there, this could be a vehicle to rebuilding, building, or strengthening those elements of the parent-child relationship,” Koontz says. 

He notes that children who have a sense of self-esteem, self-confidence, and effective communication skills typically grow up in environments where their parents foster open lines of communication. As you engage in conversation about Ukraine, consider the following. 

Normalize Fear and Emotion

Telling kids that a crisis is “far away” or “not to worry” can shame them and has potential to shut down future lines of communication, says Koontz. Rather than urging them to keep their feelings inside or manage them on their own, he says give them permission to express themselves to you. Also, acknowledge that it’s okay to be afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine. 

“Giving kids permission to feel a certain way is the first step to them expressing what’s going on. Not all kids will be affected in a negative way. You can say, ‘I know you heard about this on TV or heard about it at school, I just want to check in with you,’ in order to foster the dialogue. Then based on what they say, you know where to target your efforts as a parent,” Koontz says. 

Nick Koontz, MS, LMFT

Giving kids permission to feel a certain way is the first step to them expressing what’s going on. Not all kids will be affected in a negative way. You can say, ‘I know you heard about this on TV or heard about it at school, I just want to check in with you,’ in order to foster the dialogue.

— Nick Koontz, MS, LMFT

Parker L. Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist and owner of Central Ohio Pediatric Behavioral Health, agrees. He suggests first taking time to process what you plan to talk about. Then start by asking your child what they know or have seen/heard about the war. “Don't be too quick to correct misinformation, allow them to fully share before jumping in. Be ready to listen and not discount what they are telling you. Empathize with their concerns, even if some are unjustified but correct misperceptions,” he says. 

Additionally, Huston suggests parents share their own feelings and emotions about Ukraine in an appropriate way without sensationalizing. “Try not to say you are terrified, horrified, overcome—even if that's how you feel at the moment,” he says. Instead, he suggests parents use phrases like:

  • I'm feeling very upset right now.
  • I'm worried for the people impacted by it.
  • I'm scared too. 

“Follow these statements up with how you are planning to manage your feelings; what coping skills you are using,” adds Huston. 

Share Information About the War

Researching the crisis to the best of your ability and sharing your knowledge with kids can ease confusion. Showing them a world map and teaching them facts about Ukraine and Russia and their cultures can demystify the event. “Depending on their age, you can talk about the history of each country and an overview of why they are in conflict,” says Huston. 

Parker Huston, PhD

Depending on their age, you can talk about the history of each country and an overview of why they are in conflict.

— Parker Huston, PhD

By sharing accurate information with kids, Koontz says you can help ease their anxiety and gain parenting currency. “When something is straight up scary like this or COVID a few years ago… anxiety comes from having a lack of sense of control. The way to combat that is with information…and thus anxiety comes down,” says Koontz. 

While you might not know all the answers, he says admitting that to your child and looking up information together can create a trusting bond and show your child they can rely on you for help. “It’s a good opportunity for parents to gain credibility for future concerning situations. The war is bigger than most kids are going to go through on their day-to-day, but if they know mom knew this much about the war, they may think, ‘well I’m having this problem with a friend or boyfriend or girlfriend, let’s see what mom knows about this,’” Koontz says. 

While researching, Huston suggests avoiding vilifying entire groups of people, such as political groups, countries, and ideologies. “Young children are concrete thinkers and will take these generalizations seriously,” he says. Instead, help attach context to troubling events by explaining that many of these events are carried out by a small group of people or certain decision-makers rather than a large population. 

And always leave the door open for further discussion by asking open-ended questions, such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • What does that make you think about?
  • Do you have questions about what is happening/happened?

Teach Children to Take Action

Parents can find ways for kids to be helpers during a crisis by donating to humanitarian or child-serving causes that help those who are impacted. Koontz says doing so can give kids a sense of control and contribution, which eases anxiety. 

“When someone is experiencing anxiety, we have to evaluate what is and what is not in their control.
In this case, a 12-year-old can’t do too much in a direct fashion, however, that doesn’t make their empathy go away,” he says. Helping them donate to organizations like the American Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Save the Children, can make them feel involved. “When a kid [gives] 5 dollars or sends these originations in a mass text to family, they are exorcising that emotion,” says Koontz. 

Manage Media Intake

While talking about and helping your children process a situation is somewhat in your control, Koontz says so is managing how much news they take in. “Kids absorb everything--the good and bad--and as parents you can do something in terms of what kind of media they are absorbing. Be mindful of what you are playing on TV when kids are around,” he says. For older kids, monitor their social
media
feeds, too. 

What This Means For You

As news about Ukraine and Russia fill up social media feeds and TV time, talking to your children about the situation can help them process their emotions.

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