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Talking to your child about hard things: how to talk to your child about Ukraine

The conflict in Ukraine is on the minds of many - including your children and teenagers. Although there are not hard and fast rules about how to communicate about such difficult topics, there are guidelines that can be really helpful. Children and teenagers are able to handle more than we give them credit for. The attack on Ukraine is on the TV, radio, social media, news articles and probably on the school bus and we know that kids are always listening. It’s important that they are given accurate information and a safe space to process it. Simply the act of having these conversations can reduce distress.

Here are some points to consider when you’re trying to talk about difficult situations:

1- Identify the goal of the conversation ahead of time.

Identifying what you hope will come out of the situation ahead of time is always a good idea - this will frame how it’s discussed, what’s discussed, and can set the tone for the entire conversation.

2- What if the roles were reversed and you were the recipient of the information? What would you want or need to hear?

Taking a minute to flip the situation can give you an immense amount of guidance as to how to handle it.

3- Be sure to prioritize listening & validation.

Listen to what your child has to say and allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. Remember, validation means that you’re recognizing that someone’s feelings are valid, not that you’re in agreement.

How to talk to your child about what’s happening in Ukraine?

Let’s run through the tips above to consider how to talk to your children and teenagers about the heartbreaking situation in Ukraine right now. Chances are, they will hear about it at school, on the news, or on the bus, and it can be really helpful to have straight-forward, supportive conversations with accurate information with their most trusted adult (you!).

1- What’s the goal: having your child understand what’s going on in Ukraine, in a developmentally appropriate way, and feel supported, without overwhelming them with fear.

You’ll want to share the selective details in a succinct way. Use truthful words about what’s happening. Remind them that they are safe. The words that you use will depend on your child’s age. Teens may already be familiar with the facts, young children may have just heard the countries being mentioned.

2- What would you want to hear right now: what would you want to hear from your leader?

Someone to communicate clearly and calmly, someone who is open to your emotional response and questions and willing to admit when they don’t know the answer to a question and offer to learn together.

3- Listen & Validate

Give your child space to ask questions and to experience their emotions. Remember, it’s okay to feel sad, it is sad. It’s okay to feel confused, it is confusing. It’s okay to feel scared, it is scary. If you’re able to tolerate those feelings from your child, they will be better able to tolerate those feelings too. You don't need to save them from those feelings. You can, and should, provide reassurance that they are safe. There's a big difference.

Taken together, it might sound something like this:

There’s something going on in the world that’s important for us to talk about. You might have heard that Russia invaded and attacked Ukraine. What have you heard about it? I want you to know that however you feel about it is okay. You can always talk to me about this, or ask any questions that you might have.

For younger children, a good rule of thumb is that if they ask you about it, they deserve a truthful answer, and it might sound like this: Russia is trying to take Ukraine’s land from them. You might hear about this at school or maybe on the TV at home. We are safe and you can ask me any questions you might have. Those two countries are very far from us.

From there, follow their lead.

Here are a couple other things to consider:

  • Try to pick a good time and place for such a conversation, both for you and your child. Or, take their lead if they mention it.

  • It’s completely normal for your child or teenager to not say much during a conversation like this. It’s also normal for them to want to move out of the conversation quickly (e.g., can I have a snack?). You don’t need to push it or force the issue. The goal is for them to get their questions answered and feel supported.

  • Make sure you’re taking breaks from the news coverage - it should not be on constantly.

  • Check out a map together. Show your child the countries you're talking about.

  • Don’t forget to mention all of the helpers - government and other people working to stop the conflict and the volunteers helping those who are injured or that have been forced to move out of their homes and country.

  • If you take action in some way, share that with your child.

Ultimately, it’s up to you how much you share. Just remember to be honest, provide reassurance that they are safe, listen and allow them space for their emotions.

I hope this helps -

Dr. Kate

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