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Opinion: How to talk to your children about the war in Ukraine

Sharon Byrne of Barnardos offers some helpful advice to parents trying to navigate discussing the war with their children.

Sharon Byrne

Updated Mar 18th 2022, 10:28 AM

WITH NEWS OF the war in Ukraine dominating headlines for several weeks now, as well as across social media platforms and conversations across the country, many children are likely to have been exposed to information about the conflict.

Children do not always talk about what is worrying them but they may be trying to make sense of this information by themselves. They may have fears that the conflict will reach Ireland or that there is a danger that they or their family may be hurt.

As a parent or an important person in a child’s life, you will know your child best and you may have noticed some changes in your child’s behaviour that could be signs of stress.

Feelings come first

Children of all ages need to know they can turn to the trusted adults in their lives when they are feeling scared, worried, angry, anxious or confused. It can be difficult for us as adults to support children to regulate their feelings when we are also overwhelmed by what we are seeing and hearing. Even if you are uncomfortable with some of the emotions your child is expressing, such as anger or sadness, it is important to address their need for comfort and safety.

You may be tempted to try to divert the issue, distracting them with a toy for example, but your child needs to know it is okay to feel how they are feeling and to come to you for support.

It is important to check in with yourself first and reflect on how you are currently feeling. If necessary, take some time to calm down and breathe before you talk with your child. Think of the advice of the flight attendant ‘put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others’. You cannot support your child if you are not in a stable place yourself.

If your child is distressed and is expressing big feelings about the war, they will need your help to calm down and feel safe. This is not the time to share details about the war or to have a discussion about what is happening in the world.

Like adults, when children are upset it is hard for them to access the ‘thinking’ part of their brain so it is important that you focus first on helping them feel safe. Stay close to your child and let them know you understand how they are feeling, ‘I can see you are really upset and you are very worried about the war’, and give loads of hugs and affection. Only when children are feeling calm should you engage in discussions about the conflict.

Talk to your child

We instinctively want to protect children from the things that might frighten them; however not talking about something can make children more scared. If your child is already talking about the war, encourage them to tell you what they have heard. This way you can find out what your child knows already and pick up on and correct any misinformation. Check back in with them regularly so your child knows you are available to talk.

Answer children’s questions in language they will understand with a level of information appropriate to their age and avoid sharing too much information, as this can be overwhelming. If you do not have all the answers, that is ok. Tell your child you will let them know when you know.

Some children will have no interest in what is happening outside of their immediate environment and if this is the case then leave them be.

Create a safe environment

Children need to feel safe and secure. Media coverage of the war can be scary and upsetting. It is important to limit your child’s exposure to news reports and to discuss your own worries beyond their earshot.

You can support older children by watching media reports together so you can answer questions they may have and talk about what they are seeing and hearing. You can also find some age-appropriate news programmes such as news2day on RTÉ player.

Young children often personalise situations and may think that the danger is closer to home. Let them know that, although war is very serious, they do not need to worry about it happening in their neighbourhood.

Tell them you understand how they are feeling and reassure them that they are safe and that you are there to take care of them. It is important, however, to be realistic and not promise that no one will get hurt. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts or feelings but can be supported to make sense of the world through play.

Be proactive

Encourage children to engage in activities where they can feel helpful such as drawing pictures to send to children who are living in affected areas or responding to charities’ requests for donations. Draw children’s attention to all those working to help the people affected by war. It is important children hear hopeful messages about the future.

Children’s views are heavily influenced by the information they receive from family, friends and media. It is important to avoid stereotyping groups of people by nationality and to challenge any discriminatory talk.

Partner with the other important adults in your child’s life such as caregivers, teachers and family members. Share information with each other about any fears or concerns your child may have and together plan ways to best support your child during this stressful time.

Children who have experienced trauma or loss in their lives and children with relatives in the regions impacted by conflict will be particularly vulnerable to news of war and conflict and may need extra support at this time. Seek professional support or advice if you think your child needs it.

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Remember, it is a stressful time for everyone and all you can do is try your best. If you make a mistake that’s ok, acknowledge it and give it another go.

Sharon Byrne is the Early Years Development Coordinator with Barnardos. She has over 25 years’ experience working in early education and school age childcare and currently coordinates a range of supports for the sector. She is particularly interested in infant and early childhood mental health and trauma informed practice. Sharon is an experienced trainer and facilitator of parenting programmes.

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