How to talk to your children about conflict and war
When conflict or war makes the headlines, it can cause feelings such as fear, sadness, anger and anxiety wherever you live.
Children always look to their parents for a sense of safety and security – even more so in times of crisis.
Here are some tips on how to approach the conversation with your child and to provide them with support and comfort.
1. Find out what they know and how they feel
Kids can discover the news in many ways, so it’s important to check in on what they’re seeing and hearing. Reassure them and potentially correct any inaccurate information they might have come across whether online, on TV, at school or from friends.
A good starting point is to ask your child what they know and how they are feeling. Some children might know little about what is happening and not be interested in talking about it, but others might be worrying in silence. With younger children, drawing, stories and other activities may help to open up a discussion.
It’s important not to minimize or dismiss their concerns. If they ask a question that might seem extreme to you, such as “Are we all going to die?”, reassure them that is not going to happen, but also try to find out why they are worried about that happening. Show that you’re listening by giving them your full attention and remind them that they can talk to you or another trusted adult whenever they like.
2. Keep it calm and age-appropriate
You know your child best. Use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety. As much as you can, reassure your children that they are safe from any danger. Remind them that many people are working hard around the world to stop the conflict and find peace.
Remember that it’s OK to not have the answer to every question. You can say that you need to look it up or use it as an opportunity with older children to find the answers together. Use websites of reputable news organizations or international organizations like UNICEF and the UN. Explain that some information online isn’t accurate and the importance of finding reliable sources.
3. Spread compassion, not stigma
Conflict can often bring with it prejudice and discrimination, whether against a people or country. When talking to your children, avoid labels like “bad people” or “evil” and instead use it as an opportunity to encourage compassion, such as for the families forced to flee their homes.
Check that your children are not experiencing or contributing to bullying. Remind your children that bullying and discrimination is always wrong and we should each do our part to spread kindness and support each other.
4. Focus on the helpers
It’s important for children to know that people are helping each other with acts of courage and kindness. Find positive stories, such as the first responders assisting people, or young people calling for peace.
See if your child would like to participate in taking positive action. Perhaps they could draw a poster or write a poem for peace, or maybe you could participate in a local fundraiser or join a petition. The sense of doing something, no matter how small, can often bring great comfort.
5. Close conversations with care
As you end your conversation, it’s important to make sure that you are not leaving your child in a state of distress. Try to assess their level of anxiety by watching their body language, considering whether they’re using their usual tone of voice and watching their breathing.
Remind them that you care and that you’re there to listen and support whenever they’re feeling worried.
6. Continue to check in
As news of the conflict continues, you should continue to check in with your child to see how they’re doing. How are they feeling? Do they have any new questions?
If your child seems worried or anxious, keep an eye out for any changes in how they behave or feel, such as stomachaches, headaches, nightmares or difficulties sleeping.
Younger children may become clingier than usual, while teens might show intense grief or anger. Many of these reactions only last for a short time and are normal reactions to stressful events. If these reactions last for a prolonged period of time, your child may need specialist support.
You can help them reduce stress through doing activities like belly breathing together:
- Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 seconds breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Explain that when your child inhales, they are blowing up their tummy softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.
7. Limit the flood of news
Be mindful of how exposed your children are to the news while it's full of alarming headlines and upsetting images. Consider switching off the news around younger children. With older children, you could use it as an opportunity to discuss how much time they spend consuming news and what news sources they trust. Also consider how you talk about the conflict with other adults if your children are within hearing distance.
8. Take care of yourself
You’ll be able to help your kids better if you’re coping, too. Children will pick up on your own response to the news, so it helps them to know that you are calm and in control.
If you’re feeling anxious or upset, take time for yourself and reach out to other family, friends and trusted people. Be mindful of how you’re consuming news: Try identifying key times during the day to check in on what is happening rather than constantly being online. As much as you are able, make some time to do things that help you relax and recuperate.