Opinion | How to talk to your children about war

Lorrie Henderson
Lorrie Henderson (Courtesy of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Arizona)

By Lorrie Henderson

You can’t log in to social media or turn on the television without seeing news of the war waging against Ukraine from Russia. It is a difficult conversation for adults, but how do you explain something like this to your children?

Children are very perceptive, so it is important that when addressing this and other difficult topics, you do so in a manner and tone that is age-appropriate. It is essential to give your children a safe space to express their concerns and fears and ask questions. You aren’t expected to know all the answers. But your children will appreciate knowing that they can come to you.

Here are some recommendations for having difficult conversations.

Focus on the helpers

Children need to see people helping other people. Find news stories or examples that show acts of kindness and courage where people are helping others. Ask your child if they would like to help the children impacted by the war. Find a family-friendly volunteer opportunity where your children can see how their actions make a difference for others.

Children need to know that there are people who are helping each other with acts of courage and kindness.

Perhaps your child could participate in a fundraising effort for a local relief organization. Doing something, no matter how small, can often bring great comfort.

Encourage compassion and understanding

You likely have strong opinions about the war. But when talking with your children, it is important to put your personal feelings aside and give them the time to express their concerns. Rather than focus on the “bad people” or the “evil acts,” try instead to focus on having compassion and understanding for the families forced to flee their homes.

Be sure that any information you are sharing is accurate and age-appropriate for your child. They will have questions and it is important to reassure them that they are safe.

Your kids may hear things at school or with their friends that conflict with your family’s personal beliefs. Remind them that bullying or being bullied is not acceptable and that they should tell you or an adult if they are experiencing anything that makes them uncomfortable.

End your conversation with a question

Make sure that your child is not feeling anxious or concerned when you end the conversation. Ask a couple more questions about how they are feeling and if there is anything else they want to know. Pay attention to their body language. You know your child best. If they are breathing differently, avoiding eye contact or other activities are out of the norm, check in with them again. Remind them that you are there to listen and that they can come to you no matter what.

Device-free time

It is impossible to keep your children from hearing and seeing news about the war. But you can limit their time on their devices and create device-free time as a family. That goes for the adults, too. Taking a break from social media and online news sites, as well as traditional news outlets, will provide a much-needed respite from the barrage of information.

It’s important to respond appropriately to your children’s curiosity and anxiety and validate their feelings. Let them know that you are also concerned and that they can always come to you.

Lorrie Henderson, Ph.D., MBA, LCSW, is president and CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Arizona. This originally ran in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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