Mental Health

How to talk to kids about the Ukraine crisis?

The events unfolding following the Russian invasion of Ukraine is hard enough for adults to watch and hear about but how can we explain to children what is going on in a way that will reassure them and not leave them feeling anxious?

Young people often do not have the tools and life experience that adults have in which to deal with nervousness and uncertainty caused by world events and this is often exacerbated through access to 24-hour news and images shared across social media.

As Dr Pam Spurr, chartered psychologist and author explained to Jay James and Amy Casey on The Big Show on BFBS the Forces Station, children will soak up the information they hear and the emotions of those around them, saying: "Children are sponges and they pick up what you say and your mood." 

Children have not only had to contend with their own personal or family issues over the last couple of years, such as family break-ups, the death of a loved one or school worries for instance, but also a worldwide pandemic and now they are facing horror stories that might sound similar to the world wars they have perhaps learned about in class. 

Parents, guardians and others keen to protect the wellbeing of the children in their care, might be wondering how they can best answer difficult questions like 'why is this happening', 'are we safe', 'when will it stop' and so on. 

Dr Spurr has some simple advice to help prepare adults for these moments. 

Dr Pam Spurr Chartered Psychologist (Picture: Anne-Marie Bickerton).
Dr Pam Spurr (Picture: Anne-Marie Bickerton).

The three Ps 

Plan | Practise | Positive 

It's important to plan what you'd like to say. Take some time to think what information you think they can handle from your own understanding of their emotional maturity. 

Practise it several times and imagine your child being there in front of you. 

Don't forget to go in with a positive attitude. Once you have planned what you want to say and you have practised it in your own mind, approach the conversation with a positive attitude. 

For example, if they come to you with a difficult question, you could initially respond like this: "I'm so glad you have come to me. I always want you to ask me questions." 

Dr Spurr says it's quite normal for children to feel anxious at unsettling times like this. They might have heard their friends talking in the playground about the invasion of Ukraine. 

The psychologist explains that if children are listened to by the adults in their life they will feel emotionally supported, saying: "If you are there, feeling strong, you've done the three P's - plan, practise and be positive – then when they ... come to you worried about something, you will do your best." 

Limit the amount of news they have access to

For good mental health and wellbeing, it's important to feel safe at home.

While it is understandable that you want to keep up to date with what is happening in Ukraine, Dr Spurr is adamant that children should not be surrounded by the images and noise of war in their safe space, saying: "You might be a news junky yourself and you're keeping up on world events but do it at bedtime or do it when they're at school. 

"Get your fix of the news and don't have it blaring out where they can hear it because they do not need a constant news feed in their life." 

Be age-appropriate 

Make sure that you give age-appropriate information. What you would say to one age group might not be appropriate to another.

For example, if a five-year-old asks you what's happening in Ukraine you could respond with "someone got very greedy and they want to take land that is not theirs." 

Using words like greedy will help children of a certain age understand.

Older children will be able to understand more mature language but try to keep what you are saying as clear and uncomplicated as possible. 

Is it OK to be emotionally vulnerable in front of children? 

Dr Spurr says yes, occasionally. However, it is important to reassure them that while there are big, scary things happening in the world right now, there are people trying their best to fix the problems. 

The author claims that it is OK for children to see the grownups in their life upset and worried as long as they feel as though whatever has caused the problem is being dealt with. She said: "As long as you show them that you're problem-solving along with your upset then they'll think 'oh mum or dad, they can solve this problem'." 

Focus on the good times 

At times like this when children might feel anxious or nervous about the world around them, Dr Spurr recommends reminding them about fun things you can all do together as a family like visiting relatives or taking the dog for a big walk.

She said: "Once you feel you've answered their question or if they've seen you upset and you've calmed down just say 'don't worry, I'm just trying to solve this problem'. 

"Then shift it along to doing those happy things that you all share as a family." 

If you or someone you know needs support at this time, you can find more information here.

You can listen to the Big Show with Jay James and Amy Casey on BFBS the Forces Station every weekday from 4pm UKT on DAB+, via the app and online. 

Cover image: A father comforts his child (Picture: Aleksandr Davydov / Alamy Stock Photo).