How can we explain what war is to children?

The war between Russia and Ukraine has monopolized the newspapers, social networks, and newscasts on radio and television. Whether we like it or not, the children have heard of the Russian invasion, of the bombings, of the maximum alert that exists in those regions. The questions are inevitable, what is war? Why do they fight? are there children? And the pets? It’s challenging, but we have to go over the subject; how can we explain what war is to children?

To talk or not to talk about the war to children

Unfortunately, although we would like to keep our children in a bubble when there is war somewhere in the world, children are exposed to information in the media, adults’ conversations, and what other children in the school have heard of the topic. As parents, we must be very clear and guide the conversation according to the age of our children.

Kathleen McCartney, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explains in the article, What to say to children about war, that there is only one way to approach the subject with children, “Tell the truth, keep it simple”.

According to the expert, any conversation about the war should be in accordance with the child’s age. From the age of four, our children begin to understand what death is, but their understanding is still fanciful; they think that when people die, they go somewhere else, or it is possible to come back to life.

Before the age of five or six, they are also unclear about the concept of nations, much less war. “Four-year-olds are beginning to understand about death. They can worry about it for a short time. The biggest worry is that something might happen to their parents; that’s the worst thing a four-year-old can imagine”.

Although it is not clear to them that death is definite, many children do understand that they stop seeing the person who dies, which can generate anxiety. Their logic tells them that if someone else can die, their mom can, too, so the conversation should revolve around their parents and people close to them being safe.

At the age of eight or nine, children can worry like adults. “That’s when they can generate all the possibilities in their minds: anthrax attacks, bombings, planes crashing into buildings”, says Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Starch Research at Harvard, in the article mentioned above.

As a general rule, experts recommend that when the child is under six years old, the subject is brought up only when he asks. With older children, it is important to find out what they know since they are more exposed to more information at school. You can start the conversation with simple questions like, have you heard of this? What have you heard about…?

Why should we talk to children about war?

If we don’t talk to our children, the information that reaches them about the war can cause their imaginations to fly, and they feel in danger. The repercussions can range from anxiety to difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, and spontaneous crying.

Even if children do not express concern in all cases and ages, it is important to ask them how they feel and clarify all their questions. However, as parents, we must be careful in what we say to them. It is not helpful to talk about how many people die or give them detailed information, much less show explicit images.

Photos on social media and TV can be upsetting and distressing, so it’s good to turn on parental filters and limit the amount of time you watch the war on social media and TV. Although you need to be informed, try not to expose them to the subject excessively.

Like adults, some children are more sensitive to war than others. If you notice changes in behavior, such as sleep patterns and appetite, let your child know that you understand his feelings and concerns. Tell him that he and his family are safe and, if necessary, go to a therapist to calm his anguish.

“What is happening in Ukraine can be frightening for children and adults. Ignoring or avoiding the topic can make children feel lost, alone, and more scared, affecting their health and well-being. It is essential to have open and honest conversations with children to help them process what is happening”, says Ane Lemche, psychologist and counselor in Save the Children.

Keep it simple, but always speak the truth.

Speaking truthfully and keeping things simple are essential when answering your child’s questions about the war. If the children fear death and what may happen to their close circle, you should emphasize that their family is safe, but without hiding that other people are having a hard time.

Explain to them that in a place called Ukraine, people are suffering a lot because another bigger country wants to take over their territory. Tell them that, unfortunately, many people are injured and could even die. It is not very different from when children ask about sex; you should tell them concrete things without going into details about human biology, answer what they ask, and do not give too much information.

Strategies for talking to your children about the war

The organization Save the Children recommends five strategies to deal with the issue of war with children.

1. Make time and listen if your child wants to talk

Give your child space to tell you what he knows, how he feels, and what image he has formed of the situation. Take your time to listen to what he thinks, what he has seen and heard.

2. Tailor the conversation to the child

Younger children are usually satisfied when you tell them that countries sometimes fight, but older children will ask more specific questions like, are there children there? What about pets? Do they have to leave their houses? Answer truthfully, “Where there are attacks, people should leave their homes and look for a place to take refuge. Unfortunately, there are children. Many people are looking to neighboring countries like Poland and Romania to let them stay. Most people are trying to bring their pets with them, but it’s not always possible”.

3. Validate their feelings

If he is scared or anxious, tell him that this is normal and that you sometimes feel worried too, but that his whole family is safe. You would create a feeling of relief and security, and empathy.

4. Remind him that it’s not his problem

One thing you need to make very clear is that adults worldwide are working hard to solve the war and that it is not his problem. Tell him that he shouldn’t feel guilty about playing or hanging out with his friends.

5. If they want to help, offer a practical way to do it

Many children will feel like doing something to support people suffering in war. For example, my eight-year-old daughter asked me what could be done to help if we were so far away. I replied that many people are protesting at the embassies of the countries involved to ask for peace and for them to understand that the rest of the world disagrees with the war. Others are creating events to raise funds, and some more are sending letters and drawings to embassies to ask for peace.

You know your son better than anyone, so I suggest you research the subject to be prepared for the specific questions he may ask you.

Translated by: Ligia M. Oliver Manrique de Lara

Spanish version

We also recommend: Kids who love dinosaurs are smarter

Do not miss: Happy and strong; this is how the children of millennial mothers are