Conversations with kids about emotional subjects like the war in Ukraine can be challenging. They can evoke uncomfortable feelings and they can sometimes lead to disagreement. And yet, whether your child is concerned, curious or not in the least bit interested in the war, carving out time for a discussion is incredibly important.
If your child hasn’t brought it up, it does not necessarily mean that they don’t have questions or fears about it. Opening the door for your child to express their thoughts and feelings about a complex issue like war encourages them to process their emotions around it. Sometimes emotions can be right below the surface and so encouraging your child to open up, fosters their self-awareness.
In addition, though we don’t want to provoke worry in our kids, we want to convey to our kids that no feelings are too frightening to talk about. When we open up conversation about a difficult topic rather than shroud it in silence, we send a message that we can manage our deep feelings and we are available to help our kids do the same. Tuning into our children, communicates that their feelings are neither abnormal nor silly, and we show them that they are not alone in their concerns.
We connect and understand our children better when we talk about hefty topics like war. Our kids change all the time, and how they think and what they worry about aren’t just beacons of their personality. They are also peepholes into where our children are developmentally. According to the Experts for Social Responsibility, “The feelings children have [about war] will generally be attached to the developmental issues that are most pressing for them. For early elementary school children it will usually be issues of separation and safety. For older elementary and middle school children it will be issues of fairness and care for others. For adolescents it will often involve the ethical dilemmas posed by the situation.”
We also can learn and then assuage our kids’ concerns when we invite them to share. Even when we don’t have the answers, experts say that listening in and of itself can be reassuring to kids.
Simply listening is valuable for other reasons too. When we don’t have answers for our children, we can just thank them for sharing and commend how much they care about others and the world around them. Recognizing and valuing this quality in children can be a powerful way to develop their empathy.
Another avenue adults can take when they don’t have the answers is to suggest they search for them together with a child. Learning how to go through the steps to obtain new information can empower children to seek answers when they aren’t readily available in the future. This process shows children that there are orderly ways to uncover the unknown.
Appreciate Other Viewpoints
When we have different opinions than our children, these discussions become an opportunity to show them that there are different ways of seeing a conflict and that’s okay. We instill in them an appreciation of others’ points of view and we teach them to respect the people who hold them.
Teach Social Responsibility
These conversations can also lead to lessons in social responsibility. We obviously don’t want to raise ostriches with their heads in the ground. We want our kids to care about what people on the other side of the world experience. And when others far away struggle, we want them to know that we are not powerless. We can help by donating money, raising awareness in the community, writing letters to members of Congress, the local newspaper, or governments around the world to express our feelings and views on the war. We can hold protests, vigils, or other types of demonstrations either in support of the troops or in opposition to the war.
How to Approach Conversations with Kids About War or Other Scary Topics
Experts agree that listening is key. Constructive dialogue begins with a real effort to understand both what the other person is saying and the undergirding beliefs. When we listen to our children, we teach them how to do it themselves. We model listening, and thus how to engage in meaningful dialogue with others in the future.
Furthermore, when we listen intently and remain open-minded, we convey that a person's opinions can change, and that with new ideas and information, it is perfectly acceptable to change your mind and come to a different conclusion.
Listening also means letting children talk first and guide the conversation. Because the opinions of adults in a child's life are so impactful (especially with younger children), focusing on what the child is thinking and feeling helps the adult avoid raising new questions and fears in their child. Sometimes children just need to unload and be heard and if we get too wrapped up in sharing our own opinions or providing information that wasn’t requested, we might cut our child off from expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Oftentimes, older children are aware of their parents' opinions anyway. So this act of listening and responding to a kid’s thoughts and feelings can encourage them to think critically about their own point of view and arrive at their own conclusions.
Listening is an active process.
Put down your phone.
Show interest through body language: eye contact and nodding for example.
Ask probing questions not judgmental ones.
What kids say doesn't always mean the same thing for them as it does for adults. If your child says something unclear or something that doesn’t makes sense, you can always respond with, "That's interesting. Can you tell me more?" The goal is to elicit more information from your child without conveying judgment that what they are saying is right or wrong.
Summarize what they are saying back to them.
This shows you’re listening, validates, and also helps them organize their thoughts in their head.
Pay attention to what your child is NOT saying and acknowledge.
Nonverbal cues like facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, posture, and tone of voice can indicate strong feelings. Saying something like, "You seem sad about this. I feel sad too," sends the message that these feelings are normal, you feel the same, and yet, are still able to cope and help your child do the same.
Thank you for reading. We love to hear your reactions! Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and comments!
 SBerman, Sheldon; Diener, Sam; Dieringer, Larry; and Lantieri, Linda. “Talking With Children About War and Violence In the World.” https://www.teachervision.com/historic-wars-military-action/talking-with-children-about-war-and-violence-in-the-world