Like many parents, I’ve wondered when and how to initiate a conversation about what’s happening between Ukraine and Russia with my kids. They’re happily immersed in their elementary school bubble, where as of just a few days ago, they’re able to run outside unmasked with their friends - for the first time in two years. My husband and I have hesitated to burst that bubble, so since the beginning of the invasion, we have continued to debrief each evening in low voices after dinner, washing and drying dishes at the kitchen sink while the kids play in the living room unaware. But it’s time.
Here’s why, and how:
I read a quote by Fred Rogers once that helps answer that first question: Why proactively share tough news with kids? “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 more we show kids that no topics are taboo, and that naming our emotions can help us manage them, the more kids grow their capacity to work through hard things. Our children are going to hear about Ukraine and Russia if they haven’t already. Bringing it up at home gives parents an opportunity to frame the conversation appropriately, combat misinformation they might overhear, and to support them emotionally.
So how do we bring up tough topics like this?
Just doing a quick check-in is a good start. As you’re asking about other things about their day, like how school or soccer practice went, add on a question about whether any of their teachers or friends have mentioned any big current events lately that they’d like to talk about.
If they give you a blank stare, offer a simple, factual sentence or two about what’s happening that they can understand. Simpler is better, especially for younger kids, as unnecessary details can be confusing for them. For example, something as simple as, “Well, one country is bullying another country, and lots of people are feeling hurt, sad, and angry about that” could be an adequate introduction.
If your kids have already heard about the conflict or bring questions to you, ask them to share first what they know so far, so you can process together and combat any misinformation they may have overheard. While of course it’s natural to want to share your own feelings and reactions about the conflict, the goal should be to model compassion for those suffering and to prioritize your child’s emotional needs.
If kids really want to dig in and learn more, lean into that
Welcome their questions, even when you don’t know all the answers. If your child knows it’s OK to ask you anything, and if you demonstrate that it’s just as OK not to know all the answers, they’ll be more likely to keep lines of communication open with you as they grow.
At the end of the day, kids need to be reassured that they are safe and our nonverbal cues communicate those things more powerfully than anything else. An extra hug or cuddle can go a long way during discussion about difficult topics or when kids are working through big feelings.
Conversation by conversation, you’ll prove to them that you are a safe, strong lifeline for them, available to work through their forever-growing list of questions about the world and their place in it.
Last but not least, taking positive action can be incredibly healing for kids (and parents), not to mention for the recipients of your efforts. While the events unfolding in Ukraine are unique, the general issues surrounding it are not. Since February 20, when the conflict began, it has already displaced at least 830,000 people, and unfortunately it will displace many more.
Watching this happen from afar is hard, but there are ways to help
Choose a few charities to support through financial donations or volunteer hours. Some good options include UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. If you want to take action at home and involve your kids at the same time, assembling a care kit for a new arrival refugee child is a wonderful way to participate in a hands-on activity that directly supports a recently relocated refugee in the United States.
Wars and conflicts are scary — for all of us. But these moments present an opportunity to empower our children to engage with the world around them courageously, thoughtfully, and with compassion for themselves and others.