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An Echo Press Editorial: How to talk to kids about the horrors of war

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

Close up of caring mom hold small daughter hands
Contributed photo from the University of Minnesota
fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto

How can parents talk to their children about the horrific attack that Russia is waging against Ukraine?

Trying to completely shield your children from what is happening or ignoring that it’s taking place may not be the best approach. But talking about such large-scale violence and exposing children to even a sliver of the constant barrage of images from news sources can leave them frightened.

In a recent column, Extension educators in family resiliency at the University of Minnesota offered good advice for parents and caregivers by drawing inspiration from television host Fred Rogers, who said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

The educators – Jennifer Garbow, Anita Harris Hering, Ellie McCann, Cari Michaels and Sharon Powell – said that before parents talk with children, it’s important to make sure they have mentally and emotionally grounded themselves.

“First, remember both you and your child may have feelings of anxiety, worry, fear and grief,” they said. “Know that these are completely normal responses to stressful situations and, rather than trying to correct their negative emotions, you should honor their feelings. Kids don't need us to fix everything; they need us to be present while they experience it. This is a teachable moment for you to model how to handle these emotions.”

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Other advice:

Be mindful of what you take in. In addition to modeling emotions, focus on managing what you can manage. You have influence over what your family experiences within your home. It’s important to remain mindful of the news your child is exposed to and the conversations between adults and other children in their lives. Monitor the news you and your child are receiving. Ask yourself, “What information can my child or I handle today? What is helpful now?” Choose what is most meaningful, not what happens to appear in front of you. Pay attention to how information affects your own stress and anxiety because this can spill over to children of all ages. Be mindful of your child’s behavior for possible signs of trauma.

Parent and child facing each other in conversation. Once you feel ready, start the conversation. Ask your child what they know and whether they have questions. Address the questions as honestly and age appropriately as possible. If you don’t have the answers, search for them with your child. Remember to communicate carefully and listen to your child with empathy. Ask yourself: “Who do I want to be on the other side of this stressful situation? How does that guide my behavior now?”

Guiding the conversation. Talking about the topic might feel overwhelming. The answers to these questions are complex, and families should consider an ongoing discussion about what is happening, especially as the news about the war evolves. Who is involved in this war? Discuss the names of countries mentioned in the news articles, online or television news with your children. Where is this war happening? Find a map or a globe and have your school age child locate those countries mentioned in news articles, online or on television news. Why did the war start? Wars start for many different reasons. You might want to explain some of the reasons: Competition over territory and resources, historical rivalries and grievances, and in self defense against an aggressor or a perceived potential aggressor. One analogy to use is if someone were to come and take all of the toys because they wanted more. Would that be OK? What can we do to help? Brainstorm some ideas with your child about ways you can help them grasp what they are hearing or seeing in the news.

Parents may, understandably, be hesitant to talk about such heavy topics with their children, the educators noted. “Keep in mind that global crises will have an effect upon children whether you acknowledge them or not,” they said. “Even if it feels difficult, the healthier choice is to talk with your kids and remember what Mr. Rogers said, ‘When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.’”

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