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How To Talk About Difficult Topics (Like War) with Kids

Parent and child talking

As the world is watching the conflict in Ukraine, our children are too. Whether they are searching for answers themselves, overhearing chatter during recess, or teachers are delivering practical words of information, most likely they have questions. And you, as parents and caregivers, can be the calm, gentle source of answers. 

Honest History recently sat down with author and pediatrician, Dr. Kelly Fradin, to talk about approaching this topic with kids. You can find the full conversation here.

And, here are a few bits of advice we’ve gleaned about how to talk our children through what the war may mean and how to make sense of difficult topics:

Parent listening to child

Ask and thoughtfully listen. Start by asking what your child knows or has heard. Be sure to ask open-ended questions: What have you heard? What are you worried about? What do you want to know? This will inform the direction your conversation may take, and also can prompt you to debunk potential playground rumors. 

Put conflict in context. Our job as a parent is to give kids a framework: Wars, dictatorships, and land invasions are nothing new (from a historical perspective) and as history has taught us, we have overcome even the most distraught times of conflict. Remind children of this—that negotiating peace is a long arc and humanity has muddled its way through it before. Assure them we will again. 

Be honest and direct. Children can feel a lack of transparency, and though you don’t need to share every harrowing detail, being as honest as developmentally appropriate is helpful. They may be very interested in what world leaders are doing, as children as quite tangible and action-oriented in their thinking and understanding. Be prepared with practical explanations: how the world is helping Ukraine; what steps the UN is taking to resolve the conflict; how the US is handling our involvement, etc. 

Keep it developmentally appropriate. Be sure to use developmentally appropriate language and context. A ten-year-old’s worldview is much different than a five-year-old, so it’s okay to have different conversations with different-aged children. But for all ages, pulling out a globe to explore geography and the geopolitical nature of the conflict is a tangible way for them to learn. 

“I don’t know” is okay too. Navigating uncertainly is terribly difficult and what’s happening right now does feel out of control, which in turn may make us feel out of control. So it’s okay to be honest and share that you aren’t sure when this will end or even how it will end. But confidently reassure your child that even among the uncertainty, you are a steadfast home base that they can also turn to, and always trust that their questions will be answered. 

Parent and child hugging

It’s okay to feel the feels. Empathy is a wonderful emotion and purposeful tool on your child’s emotional journey. Trying to understand what displaced people of war are going through may conjure tough feelings of sadness. That’s okay! It is sad. It is emotional. It is worrisome. But we also need to make our children feel safe, and not let the emotional response overwhelm them. Remember, kids will pick up on your emotional temperature, so be sure to have these conversations when you are also calm and ready. 

Exude hope. If there is nothing else we can do, we can be hopeful. We can share with our children that we have faith in our leaders that they will get this right. That we have hope that peace will win over arms. That we know good will prevail. 

Make it an ongoing conversation. Leave the door open for children to come back with more, different difficult questions. As the state of the world changes, so will their questions and your responses. Assure them you are always available to see them, hear them, and support them in their curiosity. 

 

At Honest History, we encourage parents to have open and honest conversations about difficult moments in history, from the impact of colonization in magazine Issue 10 and Issue 15 to racial injustice in Issue 8. By learning about the past, we hope kids will be inspired to make a positive impact on history themselves.