Talking To Children About The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

Pandemics, mass shootings, natural disasters, and terror strikes are all possibilities. There has been a lot of sadness and worry for parents to deal with their children. To that list, add Russia’s expanding invasion of Ukraine.

With events on TV and social media swiftly developing, child development experts advise parents to check in with their children of all ages, but not to be concerned if the discussions are brief.

“For children under the age of 7, it might just be acknowledging that something is happening between Ukraine and Russia and ask, ‘Have you heard anything?’ Take the child’s lead,” said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the nonprofit Child Mind Institute in New York.

She and others stressed the need of honesty for people of all ages.

“Overall, just provide reassurance, that this is what we know right now. Let them know you don’t know all the answers but here are some places we can go,” Domingues said.

As Thursday’s battle increased anxieties, governments throughout the world, from the United States to Western Europe, Japan to South Korea and Australia, lambasted the Kremlin. Stocks tumbled and oil prices soared. President Biden hit Russia with some of the widest and most severe financial sanctions the world’s most powerful economy can summon.

Karina Serio, a 16-year-old from Cecil County, Maryland, plans to concentrate in Russian and European studies in college. As a high school sophomore, she is currently assisting Ukrainian children with their English through an online volunteer organization and moderating a group chat on the Telegram app with up to 600 Ukrainian adolescents at a time.

“I think it’s scary,” she said. “You know, right now I’m sitting here in my nice house and there’s people my age sitting in their apartments listening to sirens go off. They can’t sleep. They don’t know what to do. And I feel bad, like, what can I do?”

Janice Torres of Brooklyn is one of the parents who has already been bombarded with inquiries from her children.

“She asked why they are having a war? And if the kids are in school,” Torres said of her 8-year-old daughter. “She saw me crying as I watched a video of a dad letting his kid go on a bus. She told me that she’s glad America is not at war. She doesn’t want to go on a bus without us.”

Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, stated that whether they express it or not, young children, tweens, and even older adolescents all have the same basic worries about war: Am I safe? Are you, the individuals who are looking after me, safe? What impact will this have on my day-to-day life?

Though the invasion is taking place thousands of miles away from home for American children, social media and television coverage may make it seem like it’s just around the corner.

“Many, many, many children who witnessed 9/11 on TV, who witnessed the Oklahoma bombing on TV, who witnessed the Challenger disaster on TV, got post-traumatic stress disorder. The media is huge,” Beresin said.

As a result, several experts advise avoiding turning on the television to see the invasion unfold. Unplugging from screens for a period of time may be beneficial for very young children. Preschoolers, according to Beresin, may want extra TLC time with a parent or caregiver as they work through their emotions.

“They know things are troubled. They know things are problematic. They may ask you if you’re worried. Kids of all ages may ask if you’re worried. And frankly, you’ve got to be honest. You can say, ‘Yes, I am, but we can manage this. We can get through this.’ I would indulge them a little bit,” he said.

Andrea Barbalich is the editor in chief of Week Junior, a weekly newsmagazine for children aged 8 to 14 that has 100,000 subscribers across the United States. She has been covering Ukraine with her team.

“We’re very calm in our tone and we’re selective in the facts that we present,” she said. “We avoid very frightening and upsetting information and focus on the helpers wherever we can. Right now, for example, there are thousands of people around the world and many governments working together to stop the conflict and end the fighting. There are people on the ground who are helping people who are injured. There will be humanitarian aid for people who need it.”

Before the recent outbreak of conflict, she sent out an issue on Tuesday that focused on forces gathering at the borders, detailed Russia and Ukraine’s shared history, and emphasized the US stance. The invasion will be the subject of next week’s edition.

“We’ve heard from a tremendous number of parents already who have thanked us for covering the story so forthrightly, and they are telling us that they appreciate our calm and factual approach because their children are frightened and they weren’t sure what to say,” Barbalich said.

The most crucial step for parents, according to Dr. Nick Hatzis of the Compass Health Center outpatient mental health facility in Chicago, is to “establish an environment that allows for listening.” He believes that talking about Ukraine is precisely what some students want and exactly what others don’t.

“There’s going to be a lot of back and forth,” said Hatzis, medical director for child and adolescent programs. “We want to make sure that we are actively promoting our routines, our schedules, participating in the meaningful activities in our lives and in our kids’ lives.”

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