How to talk to children about war in Ukraine

Parents should initiate the conversation, says UCLA Health’s Dr. Melissa Brymer

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate the news, kids are bound to have questions.

Where is Ukraine? Are we safe here at home? Is there anything we can do to help?

“It’s important, as adults, that we initiate that conversation,” says Melissa Brymer, PhD, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. “By us initiating it first, we’re showing that we’re willing to have that conversation, that we’re wanting to give that kind of support and that we’re also aware of these issues.”

How this conversation plays out depends on the age of the child and the family’s connection to the region, Dr. Brymer says.

People with relatives or personal history in Russia or Ukraine, people who are recent refugees, and military families may be particularly distressed about recent events, Dr. Brymer says.

“It’s important to first honor some of these groups who might be struggling because of their own experiences in the region,” she says.

In military families, children may worry that their parent could be deployed, so it’s important to discuss those possibilities as a family, Dr. Brymer says. Children of families with relatives in Ukraine or Russia might be curious about where those relatives are in relation to the fighting and how they are staying safe.

“You want to acknowledge some of those worries and share what you’re doing here to try to keep in contact with those family members and what their plans are,” Dr. Brymer says. “Just to make sure kids aren’t filling in the gaps incorrectly.”

Addressing war in age-appropriate ways

Even children who are too young to understand war will pick up the distress of their caregivers, Dr. Brymer says.

Dr. Melissa Brymer (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

With school-age children, parents may want to begin by asking what they have heard about Russia and Ukraine. Dr. Brymer suggests showing them a map so they can understand how far Ukraine is from where they live.

“You may have to clarify that this war is not happening in our community and make sure they understand that they’re safe here,” she says.

A good time to bring up the conversation might be on the way home from school, she says. Parents or caregivers can ask whether their teachers have mentioned the conflict and what questions children might have.

Adolescents are likely seeing a lot about the war on social media, Dr. Brymer says, so it’s important for parents to initiate a conversation. She suggests asking teens what they’ve been seeing online and what their opinions might be.

Young adults who recently turned 18 may be concerned about registering for the Selective Service as newscasters talk about World War III. Other teens might be moved to join the military.

“Parents may have to review these processes to clarify some of the questions young adults are having right now,” Dr. Brymer says.

Strategies for dealing with upsetting news

Young people interested in responding to current events with social justice activities should be encouraged to do so, Dr. Brymer says. Parents and children can start at their school, inquiring about what kind of support is being offered to students who may be from Russia or Ukraine or what students can do together to stand for peace.

“I’ve known some students who’ve wanted to create a charity drive or donate to an organization,” Dr. Brymer says.

Even young children could write letters of support to troops here at home as a way of reaching out and extending empathy in the face of conflict.

“Pro-social activities like that are actually really healing,” Dr. Brymer says.

It’s important for parents and kids to be mindful about media consumption when the headlines are so troubling, Dr. Brymer says. Constant exposure to distressing images can take a toll on well-being. Very young children shouldn’t be exposed to any media coverage of the war, she says.

“Some exposure to media helps to inform what’s happening and inform the history of the region. Some families really want to understand these things,” she says.

“But some of the reports are just distressing to us,” Dr. Brymer adds. “So set a limit of how much you’re going to get updated each day and ask what are those limits that allow us to stay informed without becoming distressed.”

Learn more about behavioral health services at UCLA Health.


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