How to talk to children about the situation in Ukraine

Experts explain how to approach the topic of the Russian invasion with youngsters.

02 March 2022

It can be hard to know how to talk to children about what is happening in the world.

As the crisis unfolds in Ukraine, experts explain how parents can help children understand the events in an appropriate and empathetic way.

– Should you talk to children about important, and devastating, world events?

Child communication expert Kavin Wadhar, from KidCoachApp, said: “How old is the child, and how ready are they for the conversation?

“If they’re five years old and they haven’t heard anything about this anyway, there’s probably no need to force it upon them.

“But if they’re a little bit older and they’ve already heard things, then I wouldn’t shy away from engaging in the things going on in the world.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine
One of the most important things is to ask open-ended questions, experts say (Jane Barlow/PA)

Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Help Your Child Cope With Change (Summersdale, £10.99, available June 9) said: “They’re going to hear about it anyway, especially these days in our ever-connected world, with screens all over the place.”

She said it is important to give them the right information and help them work through their feelings, to avoid the “rumour mill of the playground” which can “take little bits of factual information and blow them out of proportion”.

She said: “This is a genuinely frightening situation anyway, so you don’t need to add some children’s hyperbole to make it frightening.

“The fact is, they’re going to be hearing about this at school, and one of your roles is to help them understand what is true and what isn’t true, give them perspective and reassure them as best you can.”

– How can you approach the conversation?

One of the most important things is to ask open-ended questions and let them talk, according to Ms Hughes Joshi.

You could start conversations with something as simple as, ‘What have you heard about the situation in Ukraine?’

“We need to know what they have heard, to then be able to correct any misunderstanding.”

Mr Wadhar said: “It’s amazing how much children can talk and think when given the opportunity to do so.”

He recommends using it as an opportunity to exercise empathy, by asking children questions such as: ‘What can we do to help?’

Russian invasion of Ukraine
A slightly older child who has a sense of the politics could exercise some critical thinking, experts say (Jane Barlow/PA)

– Should you sanitise what is happening?

“It depends on age, and it depends on the child’s temperament as well,” said  Ms Hughes Joshi. “[But] you can’t pretend there’s no war, you can’t take that sanitising too far.”

Her advice is to have a “factual, but reassuring” tone – and to avoid lying.

“If your child thinks you’re lying, they won’t be able to trust what you’re saying – and they need to be able to trust you.”

– Are there any opportunities within these conversations?

A slightly older child who has a sense of the politics could exercise some critical thinking, Mr Wadhar said.

Adults could ask them: ‘What would you do if you were X, Y, Z? If you were (Ukrainian president Volodymyr) Zelensky? What would you do if you were (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson, or leaders flying over to Poland?’

“As devastating as everything is, it’s still an opportunity to help our children think about the way the world works, put themselves in the shoes of different people, and critically and analytically try and analyse the situation,” he said.

Donation box for Ukraine
You could ask how they think we can help the situation (Andrew Milligan/PA)

– What if you cannot answer their questions?

“As parents, we don’t need to tell them everything that’s going on – we should use resources around us to help, but then be there for the follow-up discussion,” Mr Wadhar said.

“If you don’t know the answer to their question, say: ‘I don’t know, but let’s look at it together, let’s research together’.

“(This) builds another skill, the ability to research, use Google properly, and fact-finding. If you don’t know something, it makes it a bit more positive, and also a shared activity if you figure it out together.”

– How can you reassure children?

Mr Wadhar recommends reassuring children by saying things like: “We’re in the UK, a fair distance away from Ukraine and things going on there. We’re safe in that sense, physically separated.

“And (you can) talk to them about how we have really good people in charge, and the world is supporting Ukraine.”

Ms Hughes Joshi said: “If there’s a collection or making a donation, it can help children feel like they’re doing something, no matter how small, and that can make a difference.”

Leading by example can keep children calm too.

She added: “Plenty of adults are feeling anxious about this, too – and that’s completely understandable. I’m not saying pretend you’re not worried about it to your child, but try and tone down your own anxiety, and find other outlets for it.

“A child takes their cues from parents and other adults around them, so if you’re looking fairly calm about it, then they will feel calm, too.”

It is also worth making sure the news is not playing in the background all the time, because that might “stoke up their anxiety – they need a break from it”.

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