As the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues to unfold, the constantly-evolving situation can be particularly difficult to navigate for kids and teens.
Kids and teenagers may have a hard time breaking down and contextualizing the information they're bombarded with at school, on the news, or on social media — especially since it's easier to access information than ever befoore.
Robin Gurwitch, an expert in understanding and supporting children in the aftermath of trauma and disasters, says she’s already hearing about kids going to see therapists, expressing their anxiety and asking if they’ll be drafted for war.
With kids and teens being more internet savvy than ever, it’s hard to know exactly what they’re seeing. Experts say now is an important time for parents to ensure there is open communication with their children about the headline making news.
Here's what experts suggest when it comes to talking to your kids about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Initiate a conversation with your kids
According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, parents should never presume they know what their child is thinking. One of the best things they can do is ask their kids what they’re hearing and seeing about the Russia-Ukraine conflict and how they feel about it.
Not only does this give parents the opportunity to start the conversation, bbut Gurwitch says it allows them to clear up any misperceptions their child may have.
If a parent doesn’t know the answers, that’s OK. A parent can tell their kids they’ll find out and get back to them with the information.
Parents who are willing to talk about these topics sends an important message to their kids and teenagers. Gurwitch says it allows kids to know that their parents are “OK to talk about the hard stuff.”
"This is not going to be an event that is gone tomorrow,” the psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University explains to Yahoo Canada. “This will be unfolding— it’s not a one and done conversation as things unfold. You may have to continue to go back and talk about it.”
Watch the news with older kids and teens
The younger the child, the less they should be seeing the images coming out of Ukraine.
In an interview with TODAY, parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says it’s better to “engage with children age eight or older.” However, she adds that if kids are bound to hear about the war from somewhere, then parents may want to talk to them about it at any age.
According to Gurwitch, younger kids will want reassurance that they’re safe and are going to be OK. It’s important to let them know the war is very far away and their community is safe. However, be prepared for your children to express concerns for the people in Ukraine.
“If they’re worried about the people living there, say, ‘we hope that the soldiers that are there are helping to support them, the people that are going to other countries we hope are being treated with kindness and respect so that they aren’t scared,’” she explains.
As for tweens and teens, they’re more likely to see what’s happening via the internet or social media. Experts recommend they watch coverage of the conflict with their parents and then discuss the events afterwards.
Monitor adult conversations around children
Families who are dealing with financial strains due to the pandemic are bound to feel stressed thinking about how the war will once again impact the economy.
Whether you’re talking about the war or rising food and gas prices, it's important to be mindful of your tone and conversations when kids are in the house.
Kids can easily overhear a discussion between parents and if they don’t understand what’s happening, they may fill in the gaps with inaccurate details.
“Children will pick up on that [a parent's emotions] and if you say don’t worry about it, but they’re hearing you get so upset, that’s a disconnect,” Gurwitch says.
Limit a child’s exposure to the news — and take a break yourself
It’s hard to shut off the outside world with our phones always being within reach and the news just a click away. While it’s important to stay up to date with the latest information, remember to take breaks.
Gurwitch says it's important for parents to "truly take a break" from the constant news coverage to manage feelings and fears that can be overwhelming.
In its list of tips for parents and teachers in a time of war, the American Psychological Association says mapping out a routine and sticking to it is a way to manage stress and limiting change as much as possible.
Look for non-verbal indicators of stress and anxiety
Not every child may be vocal about their worries or fears. Kids may seek more affection, "become clingy" or their grades might suddenly drop. If your child is having a hard time expressing themselves with words, consider having them draw pictures to help them communicate their feelings.
Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician agrees. Talib tells The New York Times that kids struggling with anxiety can have trouble sleeping, have a change in appetite or be more irritable. The doctor says if a parent sees signs of anxiety like these, to let their kids know you are there to talk about what’s bothering them.
Whether a child is stressed about the current situation in Europe, or the child comes from a military family and this is bringing up past fears, Gurwitch says parents should seek professional help if they notice their child having difficulties.
“If you’re ever worried about anything, check in with your pediatrician or your local mental health centre," she says. "There’s not a dumb question because children do not come with manuals."
Find ways to help people affected by war
Sometimes kids don’t just want to talk about how they’re feeling, but they also want to know of ways they can help.
Giving kids and teens a purpose or a task to help give back can help ease anxieties, fears and feelings of helplessness. Parents can guide their children on how they can help those affected by war. Some of those include making a donation to a charity, supporting local refugee groups, or participating in activities being offered by your faith or cultural organizations.