Skip to main content
Wellbeing & Personal Development

How to talk to children about the war in Ukraine? 

How to talk to children about the war in Ukraine? 
Share this article:

The images currently coming out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are highly affecting us all but can be particularly upsetting for children. Images and footage of war can disrupt a child’s sense of security and highly damage their understanding of the world.  

Anxiety can vary in intensity and take many forms depending on the child’s developmental stage. For young children, it can appear as regression: becoming afraid to be left alone; not wanting to see friends or take part in activities; having trouble getting dressed or making a meal. It can also manifest itself in developing new phobias or worsening existing fears. Anxiety is also often observed in irritability, difficulty concentrating, problems with sleeping, and experiencing nightmares and panic attacks. These behaviours have a basic objective: to relieve tension and gain care, closeness, and attention from parents. 

For older children and adolescents, anxiety can manifest itself in different behaviours, including concentration disorders, sleep problems, outbursts of aggression or tearfulness, isolation from others, and withdrawal into the world of virtual games or television. Some children in this age group also exhibit compulsive analysis of information and media images about the war and an increase in risky behaviours, reaching for alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. The primary function of these behaviours is to relieve emotional tension. 

 What can we do to help our children get through this period? 

  1. Keep calm. Remember that your child is looking to you for confirmation of their fears. Calmly and objectively talk to them about the situation in Ukraine, adjusting your answers to the child’s age. For younger children, the main question is often: Why has this happened, and will there be a war in our country? Keep your answers simple and, above all, reassure the child that they and your family are safe. 

  1. Limit your child’s exposure. A small child will not understand media coverage of war and will perceive it primarily on an emotional level. Furthermore, they often will not know how to start a conversation about it with you. Therefore, as parents, we must be highly attentive to what our children hear in the media: control their access to the internet, watch the news while they are asleep, and be careful about what you and other adults discuss around them.  

  1. Do not avoid the subject. Limiting is essential, but it is impossible to completely protect our children from the topic of war in Ukraine, and we shouldn’t seek to do so. If we don’t talk to them about it, they will seek answers elsewhere. A better strategy is to control their understanding of the situation. Ask what they have heard or seen and how it has made them feel. Be prepared for frank, constructive conversations about the reality of the war while emphasising their safety. Justify your claims and avoid catastrophising. Treat older children as equals in the conversation, asking about their thoughts and opinions. Instigate these discussions regularly to keep on top of any rumours or misunderstandings.  

  1. Give them agency. A great way to build understanding and resilience is to involve older children in fundraising or other relief efforts. Taking part in these activities helps relieve tension and gives children a sense of agency in scary times. It teaches them that they can channel anxious energy into doing something good.  

  1. Bring routine and order to your family life. The predictability of routine gives children a sense of security, so plan time for study, play, housework, and sport. However, a routine should not be equated with boredom, so be creative and bring variety to the activities you plan: bake a cake, teach them some DIY, exercise together, plan a holiday, read aloud, etc. Crisis cannot be an excuse for inactivity; children need exercise and attention to keep busy and relieve emotional tension. 

  1. Accept your child’s emotions. Tension and anxiety can manifest in various ways, and although the war may exacerbate a child’s stress levels, the root cause may be something different. Try to understand the source of your and your child’s emotions. Take time to listen, and don’t disregard their concerns. Offer your support and understanding, and if you feel that the situation is too much for you, seek help from a specialist. 

  1. Take care of yourself. A stressed parent nearly always leads to a stressed child. You are likely experiencing a great deal of uncertainty yourself right now, and it is difficult to support others when you are burnt out. So take care of yourself and prioritise your well-being.   

Daniel Giejbatow is a senior consultant at Impact Poland. He is also a Tatra volunteer search and rescue worker (TOPR), vice president of the TOPR Foundation, and a psychotherapist with many years of experience working with children and adults in crisis situations.