How to Talk to Your Child About What is Happening in Ukraine

If you’re anything like me you’ve been having a rough go the last couple of weeks as the situation with Ukraine and Russia unfolds.

Parents are asking how to talk to their little ones about what’s happening, how to make it tangible for them, and what they can do to support children in Ukraine.

Yes! You should be talking to your kids about what is happening in the Ukraine.

You should be talking to them because if you don’t someone else will. Kids are horrible at giving second hand information.

You also don’t know who gave them their information!

Think back to 9/11, those of you who were in elementary school. I was in grade 8 at the time and by the time I got home from school, I was pretty sure the world was ending because of all the wild stories that were floating around. I was 14!

You can only imagine the wild theories that little ones especially those that are 4/5/6 will have with snippets of information they hear from the adults.

If you haven’t yet make some time to discuss it with your children.

Pop some popcorn, snuggle on the couch, and start by asking them what they know.

When I asked my sons they knew Russia had invaded another country and people were upset but that was about it and because my husband is in the military, the next question was “is Daddy going to fight the bad guys?” Most kids even if they aren’t in school or daycare, will already have picked up something. I always like to start by asking what they already know so I can either correct it or build off of it.

Much like we talked about in November when we discussed talking about historical violence with children, it’s important to try and find first-hand accounts. Now, this is going to be harder given it’s an ongoing conflict and Russia isn’t exactly known for playing nice when it comes to spreading malicious propaganda and fake news. Anything you do use as a source make sure that you fact check before spreading it to your children.

I wouldn’t suggest showing your children videos or images unless you vet them first but talk about the victims. The Ukranians are dealing with this. Ask them to imagine what it would be like if your hometown was bombed or you had to pack up only what you could carry and leave your home to go live somewhere new and unfamiliar.

Children relate best to other children.

Speak to your child about other children’s experiences; they have on a daily basis and what this conflict means for children like them is the best way to make those connections. How do you think this is impacting their school or daycare? How do you think they’re finding food? Where do you think they’re sleeping? These everyday things that our children take for granted are the conduit we can use to help foster understanding of the impacts.

While you’re speaking of the conflict and the impacts it’s having, make sure to reassure your children that they are safe and as always- tailor your conversation to your children and their emotional capacity. What I can say to my two children who are used to military terms and imaginary violence may not be the same things you can say to children who have no exposure to conflicts in the past.

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

In a prior post about historical violence, make sure that you give them small chunks of information and wait for them to digest them prior to offering more. This is likely going to mean that you don’t just have one big sit-down and then you’re done.

It’s going to be an ongoing conversation.

I like to give my children one or two sentences worth of information, and then wait for them to ask a question to expand. We don’t want to snow them with facts because that will overwhelm them and then they won’t process any of it.

Make sure to give little bits of information, and then wait for an invitation to share more.

This might not be till hours or days later. My original conversation with my boys was like 5 minutes long and then they were like “okay, can we go play?” and off they went.

A week later my oldest came to me and was like “I heard this about the war in Ukraine and I don’t know what it means.” We continued the conversation he and his brother both asked some good questions, and then they were satisfied and we stopped. It was maybe a 15-minute conversation.

It’s going to take our children a lot longer to think about what they’ve heard, process it, and think of what doesn’t make sense to them about that so they can ask questions.

Go into it with the intention of this being your first conversation in a series, not the conversation.

Finally, give them something to do to help.

Children like to take action against injustice, they have a fierce sense of right and wrong. As many of us know, when something is happening that we can’t control and that upsets us taking action can really help. This might be as simple as coming up with a small fundraiser they can contribute to so they can donate the proceeds.

My sons have been working on a bottle drive in our neighborhood they’ve been taking their wagon and going to knock on our neighbors’ doors to ask if they have any empties they would like taken away, and the money collected from returning the bottles will go to Medicins Sans Frontiers to help support Ukraine. They chose the charity. They’re doing all the leg work. They come home and sort the bottles and cans and we’ll take them all in once they have a good volume. They’re just doing it around our house, and our neighborhood is very tight-knit and safe so I feel comfortable with them doing that. They’re also 8 and 5.

If they were younger, I could go with them and support them more hands-on. Maybe there’s a fundraiser you could encourage your daycare to get involved in.

There’s lots of options, and it doesn’t have to be big or fancy. But giving them a way to tangibly do something not only teaches them to support their fellow human beings- but it helps relieve that anxiety of a bad thing happening that you can’t control.

When they express emotions, empathize.

Try to clarify and label the emotions they’re expressing for them. “That sounds like it scares you.” “It sounds like that makes you angry.” “You wish Russia would stop.” Using reflective listening where you’re basically repeating what they say, slightly re-phrased, is very helpful for kids because it confirms that we understood them and that their feelings are valid.

Children learn to empathize by being empathized.

This is a good step to take especially in a situation that is wildly lacking in empathy because it will help them process those emotions and keep their connection to the victims.

I know this is scary to talk to your kids about, and we want nothing more than to bubble wrap them and pretend that it isn’t happening and that the world is a safe place the entire earth over.

Let’s give the kids some credit.

They are capable of being informed and hearing about scary events at a level that is developmentally appropriate-and processing that information. They are capable of making meaningful contributions and understanding difficult truths.

As long as we keep this an ongoing, empathetic, supportive conversation honesty is always the best policy.

I hope this helps you feel a bit more empowered when it comes to talking to your littles about everything that’s going on in the world right now. I know it’s overwhelming, and we don’t want to do it but I believe in you.

If you need support or are having difficulty figuring out a way to answer a question that comes up in a developmentally appropriate way you can always tell them that that’s a good question, you’ll have to think about it and then come tell us in the Parenting Posse and we’d be happy to talk it through and give you some options.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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