Talking about the War in Ukraine

A refugee toddler’s body washed up face down on a beach. A police officer kneeling on a handcuffed Black man’s neck. Trafficked girls staring vacantly into space. The news is full of devastating images and stories that trouble children and leave parents and caregivers wondering: What do we tell the kids?

Today’s breaking news is about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Videos of rocket launches and mortar explosions are already appearing on social media sites. Even if you are trying to shield children from the story, the sheer volume of images and discussion means they will likely hear about the conflict. Rather than letting these chance encounters with news reports and TikTok define what they know, take time to talk with children in age-appropriate ways about what is happening.

Preschool children are primarily concerned with how bad things might affect them and other children. Since this conflict is far away, reassure them that no big tanks or rockets will be rolling into your neighborhood. Then focus on how Ukrainian parents are taking care of their children. Explain that parents are talking with kids about what to do in an emergency, just like your family makes an emergency plan for a big storm. The children are learning to recite their address and parents’ full names in case they get separated from their family, just like you want them to do if they get lost in a store. And if a child is too little to remember, caregivers are pinning notes to their clothes with the information. Let your child know that everyone is working hard to keep children safe.

Younger elementary children may want to know why Russia and Ukraine are fighting. Explain that countries often have disagreements and sometimes that leads to fighting, just like between people. Add that Russia is acting like a bully, so Ukraine has turned to other countries in the world to help it stand up to Russia’s unfair treatment. Since children this age are very interested in fairness and consequences for bad actions, emphasize that leaders in the U.S. are working with other governments around the world to punish Russia. They want to limit Russia’s ability to do certain activities and get money, kind of like how parents use timeout or withhold an allowance when children misbehave.

Older elementary children are able to grasp more of the nuances of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Help them research the history of the region before and after World War II (see Related Resources). Read or listen to the news together and point out how various world leaders are condemning Russia’s actions and rallying to help Ukraine. Acknowledge that some responses will also mean higher prices (like for gas) and other negative consequences in the U.S. because of how much countries depend on each other for goods and services. Talk about the need to stand up for certain values and principles even if doing so also causes some economic pain.

War is scary, even when it is far away. Providing children with opportunities to process what they are hearing and seeing with trusted adults will give them the tools they need to thrive even when afraid.

Photo from CNN.

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