Talking to Young Children about the Ukrainian Crisis

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For much of February, our family has enjoyed watching the Olympics with our 4-year-old, Weston, and 2-year-old, Kelsa. The events have prompted lots of great questions about the snow and cold, the mountains, all the cool sports and the different countries people live in. These unprompted questions led to conversations of culture and some of the different ways we do things. One topic that has been of particular interest to our children, especially Weston, is the concept that while we are getting up in the morning, people on the other side of the world are going to sleep. I didn’t intentionally introduce this idea to him, but when I was telling my spouse I wanted to watch an event that I already knew the results of, our son caught on. “Mom, how do you already know who wins!?” he asked in wonder. I thought, sorry buddy, I don’t see the future, I just listened to the news this morning. It has been fun trying to think of ways to explain the earth’s rotation to a 4 (almost 5) year-old and forced me to dive back into some elementary school science I haven’t really thought about in a long time. 

Then, a week ago, as we were going to bed, our sweet child asked me, “Mom, where’s Russia?” My heart sank. Had this been any other week, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I would have pulled out the globe and talked to him about how Russia is really close to China, and they are just starting to wake up as we go to bed. Weston has not been watching the news as we haven’t been watching it in our house. My mind quickly thought of the war happening and I began to wonder how I would explain this to him if he asked any questions about it. I told him Russia is a country by China and it was morning time there. Then I asked if he had any other questions. He did not.

As Russia started to bomb parts of Ukraine my mamma brain went on high alert. One  morning, Weston woke up and asked our Google Home to tell him the news. As soon as it turned on, the sounds of artillery fire blared. “Google, STOP”, I nearly yelled. Then I thought again, what is the right way to handle this? Do we block our children from this? How do we talk to them about it? How do I let my child know he is safe? Should children know about this war? What if he hears about it from somewhere I can’t control? This led me to consult some experts and share some recommendations.

Every family needs to think about how they want to have these discussions and if the recommendations are ones they agree with The recommendations I found and am sharing are based on what we know about young children’s thinking and their understanding of concepts that we ourselves often do not understand.

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What are ways to support young children (3-6 years) in talking about the war that is happening?

These past two years have been emotionally exhausting and particularly for young children a time of confusion and great uncertainty. Now we have the crisis in Ukraine.

Children are watching you, be mindful of your own reactions to the crisis. It is important for children to see you model feelings and reactions that are safe and do not overwhelm them.

Watch the news when children are not around: Young children often do not understand that when they see an image over and over again on TV, that the same tragedy isn’t happening again and again. They also may not understand that these scary images are happening in a place far away. When adults watch media coverage of traumatic and upsetting events it is related to their having increased stress and anxiety. In one study children had increased symptoms of post traumatic stress after watching televised impacts of violence of the Gulf War. For these reasons, among others, it is best to not watch these upsetting and even in some cases traumatic events with children, even if they are playing in the background.

Let children lead the conversation, ask questions, and offer Reassurance:

If your child is 5 years old and asks, “Daddy what is war? What is happening in the Ukraine?, Are we safe?” Most children at this age (and even older) want to know: Am I safe? Who will keep me safe? Will my day-to-day routine be affected?

It is most important that you reassure children that they are safe right now and what is happening is far away. Show them on a globe or map if you have one. Then ask them if they have other questions. Do not share more information then what they ask for. It is also important to be honest. It is ok if you say, “I do not know. I do know that you are safe right now.” With young children is it important to be simplistic. You can also share that there are people helping and trying to stop the conflict.

Let children express their feelings: If children express that they are worried and sad it is helpful to acknowledge these feelings. You can say, “yes what is happening in the Ukraine makes me feel sad. I remember that I’m safe and you are safe.” It is not helpful to say, “You don’t need to feel sad, your okay.” It is always helpful to let children know that having sad or unpleasant feelings is okay.  

Use storybooks and storytelling to help children understand stressful or traumatic events: Storybooks are relatable and helpful ways for children to understand complex issues. Through the Nebraska Extension’s Read 4 Resilience program, storybooks have been identified  to support children’s coping and understanding of their feelings after experiencing a major stressor, disaster, loss, and/or grief. Visit the website for more ideas and learn how to use reading story books with children to help cope. https://child.unl.edu/read4resilience

Watch for any Signs of Distress: When adults and events are stressful, sometimes young children will express that they are having a  difficult time through behaviors. Things to look out for in young children who may be experiencing distress from seeing these events include regression (such as starting to have accidents when fully potty trained), wanting to be around parents or caregivers more than usual, worry that something bad will happen or issues with sleeping.  It’s not uncommon to see some of these behaviors happen briefly, but if they persist, consider discussing with your pediatrician.

Take Care of Yourself and Reach Out for Support: Finally, the Ukrainian crisis affects as all. Be sure to take care of yourself, limit your own exposure to these events if needed and don’t hesitate to reach out to family, friends or a mental health professional when you need to talk.

How to Help: Many organizations are available that can help provide aid to the Ukraine. Save The Children is accepting donations and will deliver humanitarian aid to children and families in this crisis. https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Otto, M. W., Henin, A., Hirshfeld-Becker, D. R., Pollack, M. H., Biederman, J., & Rosenbaum, J. F. (2007). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms following media exposure to tragic events: Impact of 9/11 on children at risk for anxiety disorders. Journal of anxiety disorders21(7), 888-902.

Joshi, P. T., Parr, A. F., & Efron, L. A. (2008). TV coverage of tragedies: what is the impact on children. Indian Pediatr45(8), 629-634.

Hilt, R. (2013). Terrorism and Disasters in the News: How to Help Kids Cope. Pediatric Annals42(6), 226.


KATIE KRAUSE, EARLY CHILDHOOD EXTENSION EDUCATOR | UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

Peer Reviewed by Holly Hatton-Bowers, Early Childhood Extension Specialist and Lynn DeVries, Early Childhood Extension Educator

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