Analysis: some tips on how to talk about the devastation that's unfolding in Ukraine and how your children may be feeling about it

Over the last number of days, children may have seen images of families fleeing Ukraine and heard or read about the invasion. It can be upsetting and scary for children and adults alike, causing worry and fears about the future. But how do you approach talking to your child about the devastation that's unfolding and how they’re feeling about it?

Should you wait for your child to come to you?

"If the child is under five, before school age, I would say take the lead from the child," says Dr Caroline Heary, developmental psychologist in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway. "If they show signs of worry, if they bring questions to you, or if they've been in the company of people who’ve been talking about it and you see an impact on them, it’s a good time to talk.

"You don't necessarily need to introduce it to a very young child if it's not something they've been exposed to", adds Heary. It’s probably to be expected that most teenagers and older primary school children have come across it, if not at home or travelling in the car when the radio is on, then in school when they’re with their friends.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, how to talk to children about grief with Clinical Child Psychologist David Coleman and Limerick Childrens Grief Centre Ambassador Olive Foley

Listen and ask open-ended questions

As an adult, you may be experiencing your own worries and feelings about the situation in Ukraine, but it’s important to listen and ask open-ended questions when addressing it with your children to encourage expression, communication and reflection.

"Open-ended questions about, what have they heard, or what do they feel about what’s happening, gives you a bit of an insight into what they know about it and how they’re making sense of it," explains Heary. A parent can also then use this to address any misconceptions that emerge or help manage any worries or fears that the child might have.

"Some children might be very curious and seek to know more and other children might show no interest or awareness in it at all. We don’t need to raise worries and concerns if none are present, so the open ended question works well to give us insight into what they know and what they understand."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, child psychotherapist Joanna Fortune on how to talk to children about murder

Language and age-appropriate information is important

"A 5 year old is probably not going to understand the concept of nations being at war, that's a very abstract concept that doesn’t really fit that child’s world", Heary suggests. "Younger children in those early primary school years might understand the concept of people or groups fighting with each other, that’s a more tangible, concrete way of saying it."

For children who have access to the internet and social media, Heary says it’s really important that we try to give some guidance regarding accurate information sources and that we monitor what and how much they are exposed to. Constant exposure to negative news "can be overwhelming" Heary says, and children will need help on how to cope with and process that.

The family being present while the news is on can also be used as the basis for discussion and reflection. "At least when you're present, you know what they've heard and you can help them make sense of it, as opposed to them being exposed to it independently without the adult being present".

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, Siobhan Parkinson on how to talk to children about the death of a baby

Avoid unnecessary detail and give them hope

Don’t overwhelm children with lots of negative information and gory details, particularly younger children. Parents should stick to "factual, simple information that's honest, but also gives a message of hope," Heary says. Not losing hope for your future is really important when you’re growing up, she adds.

Acknowledge your own worry

Adults should be conscious of the emotional impact seeing difficult, harrowing scenes is having on themselves. "Children are like sponges, they pick up those non-verbal signs, if mom or dad is showing worry or upset or ruminating over, you know, what difficult, difficult news," Heary explains.

"Processing it ourselves is important and being mindful of taking care of ourselves before we can relay and discuss it with our children. So how do we manage our own feelings and can we model calmness and provide children with reassurance."

Ukranian children displaced by the Russian invasion of their homeland

It’s OK to say 'I don’t know'

"If we're not ready to support the child with the questions they're asking, it's about not dismissing it, giving the positive message that we're listening and taking on board what they’re saying and acknowledging if it's a fear or a worry, and validating the child's feelings.

"But then if you need to say, let's think about this for a little while and talk about it again later, I think it's fine. Or saying, I don't know the answer to that right now, I understand why you might be worried and I’m worried too, and coming back and exploring that maybe again a little bit more when it works for the parent and the child," says Heary.

Tell them they are safe

"It’s a delicate balance between informing children and not overwhelming them," says Heary. Parents don’t have to have all the information at the outset so "we just need to tell children they're safe, we're here for them."

Messages of security and safety are important for all children, as are illustrations of people helping and working hard to support those who have lost their homes or can’t go to school. "Trying to provide positive messages of hope, reassurance, caring and concern is important to counteract these messages of conflict and violence."

Give older kids a sense of agency

Heary says parents can give older children and teenagers a sense of agency by showing them that there are things that they could do to make a difference. This could be making a donation to an organisation or gathering supplies that somebody might be shipping to those affected. It can also help to talk to them about what’s being done in Ireland to illustrate that many people are doing good and showing solidarity.

Don’t generalise and avoid stereotyping

Heary highlights the importance of avoiding generalisations and stereotypes about different nations, to make sure we don’t encourage prejudice or discrimination towards people. "It's more about the actions and the behaviours and the decisions of some people has led to this conflict or war or fight occurring but that it is not the fault of everybody from that country."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ