You may be unsure what to say or do if your child or teen is anxious about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Particularly if you have family or friends in the region or your child has questions about things they’ve heard from peers or seen on the news. This post explores some ways you can support yourself as you reassure your child or teen.
Something to remember is that covid or other issues you have had to navigate with your child/teen will have prepared you for this even if it feels different or scary. So come back to this post each time you need to pause, calm and focus. Remind yourself you can do it.
Begin with yourself
During times of crisis children and young people look to adults to be:
- dependable and reliable
- a source of comfort and security
- honest (in age-appropriate ways)
- calm and consistent
- reassuring that it’s understandable to feel anxious in a scary or unknown situation
Children and young people will take their lead from adults. Adults that model how they may feel worried but are also coping with those fears will be more reassuring than those who’re panicking, exposing children to adult worries, or pushing children or young people to be scared.
This means before you help your child or teen you should:
- get support from other friends/relatives
- find ways to calm
- seek care if you’re worried about your own mental health (although this is covid-related there’s a list of sources of help for you here).
Having supported yourself (remember to continue to do this as and when you need it) you can begin to help your child/teen by making space to discuss worries. Don’t push or force this or assume they want to share. Just because you’re worried it doesn’t follow they are. Start gently by letting them know you’re available.
Behaviour is a language – how is your child or teen doing?
Some children will use behaviour as a language so you may notice more clingy behaviour, tantrums, wetting or soiling accidents, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or regressing. Routines, familiarity, comfort, positive distraction and security can all be reassuring here.
Other children may demonstrate how they’re feeling via play, drawing or interactions with peers or siblings. You might notice more aggressive interactions, frustration, breaking things, shouting; or conversely withdrawal from socialising or play.
It might be that play, drawing, modelling, online gaming/building etc allow for children or young people to vent or express anxieties in safe and familiar ways. You can carefully observe as it may be this gives more clues to how they’re feeling and if more assistance is needed. You might also suggest children or young people use writing, drawing, playing etc as a means of communicating but don’t force this. They may not want or need to do it or feel awkward or uncomfortable.
If children or young people are using games (on or offline), art, or other play don’t assume because they’re sharing violent things that there is a crisis (or if they aren’t sharing anything that seems concerning that they are fine). You can ask them how they’re feeling, keep that space for communication open, ask if they’d like to talk about anything. Give them opportunities to talk, while making meals, during dinner, car journeys, on the bus, at bedtime. They may also come to you with questions or worries. Not necessarily at the most convenient of moments, but that may be because they sense security in you being preoccupied, it allows them the chance to ask briefly and escape. You can always say if you’re truly busy but promise to return to their question as soon as you’re able. This can also work if they have a great many questions and you need time to pace yourself.
Listening to your child or teen
If your child or teen does have questions or worries about Ukraine let them talk. Try not to interrupt with questions, fixes or corrections. Validate their feelings and autonomy by encouraging them to open up. That might be in a verbal conversation, via text, or notes.
Sometimes just having the space to speak as someone listens can be reassuring. Children and teens will appreciate being acknowledged and affirmed. The goal here is not to teach or challenge but let them tell you how they are feeling, what is troubling them, and why.
Because you care, you may want to offer reassurance, but jumping in immediately to do this can have the opposite effect. Letting your child be scared, upset or angry may feel counterintuitive but it is what they need to do, safely, with you there holding that space for them.
Some of what they want to talk about may have no clear answers and may also need no specific fix. It is completely normal to be feeling scared when rolling news, your peers, and social media is discussing war.
However they may have very direct questions like ‘are we at war?’ ‘is this WW3?’ ‘are we going to die?’ In these cases you can answer the questions briefly and factually in ways your child/teen will understand. You might find answering questions is enough to reassure your child/teen or it might open up more questions. ‘Why has Russia invaded Ukraine?’ ‘will I be made to fight?’ ‘what is NATO?’ It is okay to say ‘I don’t know but let’s find out’ if you aren’t sure of answers.
Sources of help to answer their questions
A good source of information for children is BBC Newsround who have a number of resources explaining #Ukraine including this video. Older teens may find BBC Newsbeat informative.
Your child or teen may also view these (or similar) in school or hear peers discussing news. They might ask to discuss the news coverage with you or you may suggest this for children or teens you feel would be able to understand and also be reassured by you guiding them through coverage. Pausing or turning off as needed and answering all questions as they arise. You may also want to add your own opinions, based on what you think might comfort your child.
Do not suggest children search for news to discuss with you or search the news (or social media) while your child/teen is with you. Some content will not be appropriate for them to see and will not help if you’re trying to model calmness, clarity and care. Teens may decide to do this whatever you recommend, so be ready to answer questions or look after them if they do see or hear content that frightens or upsets them.
Moving questions forward
Once you have listened to your child/teen you can begin to introduce questions for them – such as asking if other friends or people they follow on social media have mentioned issues. Then find out what, and again listen to what your child/teen thinks of those views. Don’t criticise what friends/peers are saying – ask your child if they agree and for alternative views. You can also reinforce how worries are opinions, not necessarily facts, and therefore can be acknowledged but not entertained for long periods of time.
Their questions, play, drawing, or other disclosures may have made it clear to you what they’re anxious about, but if you are not completely certain you may want to say you know they’re worried but are not sure why. Ask them if they can tell you in ways that suit them best. This approach is helpful because it means if they are not worried about what is happening in Ukraine you can establish what those concerns are and address accordingly. It also means you don’t prompt or suggest and accidentally introduce even more fears they hadn’t considered.
Having established they are worried about Ukraine you can offer to help them find ways to try and reduce those concerns. They may be able to say what would help or make things better or worse. Knowing you’re there to answer questions and listen and care may be all they need.
Don’t assume you need to add lots of things – let them be your guide as they may have suggestions on ways you can support them. Or if they cannot do this you might check if they feel sad, afraid or panicky and suggest a range of solutions for them to try (more on this shortly).
Maintaining a sense of security
As tempting as it may be, don’t change their regular routine. Clubs, school, friendships, visits with relatives, sport, hobbies, mealtimes etc are all going to help them feel secure and in many cases prove a useful distraction and outlet for fearful feelings. Do, however, alert their childminder/nursery, school, college, club leaders etc if your child/teen is more fragile than usual so collectively you can enable them to feel able to cope even if they do need to continually seek reassurance for a while.
You may want to tell them that you also feel worried but that you are hopeful things will be resolved and you are going to do what you can to keep yourself and them safe. Be careful how you do this, however, as it’ll reassure some children/teens and unsettle others.
When it comes to social media I cannot stress strongly enough that you should be extremely careful with your child or teen’s access. If they have a mobile phone and any access to lives or stories they effectively have access to a war in their pocket.
This may mean temporarily restricting access for younger children, supervising access, or for older teens to explain the risks of TikTok etc showing them live coverage of conflict and what to do if they see anything that is frightening or distressing.
Older teens should also be encouraged to learn more about disinformation and the risks of sharing inaccurate or prejudiced content, alongside sharing graphic images or descriptions. School/college may also be able to reinforce these messages. Remember if your child or teen shows you something upsetting or describes something unsettling try to keep calm, don’t let them feel you’re angry or disgusted with them, but do investigate how they feel. Noting trauma/shock may manifest itself later or be masked by bravado.
Given how many young people have made friends online it is also likely they may have fears for friends living in countries near Ukraine (or you or family may be located there). Acknowledging those worries and care for their friends is very important, don’t dismiss them. This is an emerging crisis so you should continue to check your own reactions to the news, limit anything causing you distress, and use reliable sources of information. Alongside reflecting on whether communication and care for your child is working or needs changing/adapting.
Your child or teen may be more anxious because of the (ongoing) impact of covid alongside other world events or local and personal issues (some more directly than others). Allow for them to have a bundle of fears, trust issues, and potentially a lot of anger mixed in. You may hear older children and teens talk about not being able to trust politicians or the news, this is a result of a combination of factors over the years. So it’s even more important that you remain their dependable, consistent, loving, calming and reassuring grown up.
As reports are shared different fears and concerns will arise for children and teens based on their own level of understanding, peer group discussions, and lived experience. That could be about warfare and injuries, conscription, racism, being trapped, leaving family or pets.
Your community, friends or other therapeutic support may be necessary. More so if what’s happening now is reminding you of your past, particularly if you have experienced or fled violence and conflict or survived an accident or disaster. It may be that you are struggling so much because of your trauma you don’t feel able to answer your child or teen’s questions or even cope with their distress or anxiety. In which case help for you and someone else to assist them (eg a friend, teacher, neighbour etc) is good. They may prefer this option anyway (it does not mean they don’t trust or love you).
Children and teens whose lives have been disrupted by covid; who’ve been bereaved; are neurodiverse; who’re already experiencing family difficulties; are chronically sick, mentally unwell or disabled may all also be finding the news and reactions to it difficult.
Remember that while the thread cautions against the risks of what children and teens might see, they could be equally distressed by what they’re told by peers or influencers which might be straightening reporting of events – or using events to bully, harass, scare or stigmatise. This is why having space to let children and young people talk without jumping in and fixing may help you as a parent, carer or teacher establish what it is that the child/teen is scared of and what assistance they require.
Other sources of advice
Remember sometimes your child and teen would prefer to confide in more than one person or chat to someone other than you. It isn’t a sign of disrespect or lack of trust. They may want reassurance in different ways from a range of trusted adults. That’s a good thing. You might also find they say things that other adults (including social media influencers) have said that you are worried about. Trust your child/teen. Invite them to say what they think (they may also disagree). But be alert to them sharing extremist or threatening ideas.
Alongside tips above, here are some sources of support you can use with your child or teen. Newsround has a reassuring guide on what to do if the news is scary. Childline and Young Minds give mental health support. These guides for children and teens focus on covid but link to a range of organisations that can support wellbeing and offer lots of ways to calm and self-care You can get support from Family Lives. While the Anna Freud Centre has 90+ ideas for self-care which can be selected to soothe a worried child or teen. Remembering that hobbies, activities, baking or gaming that children/teens select themselves can be equally important and distracting.
If your child or teen is already struggling with mental distress (perhaps due to covid or other past trauma or illness) they may be finding the current news and uncertainty very challenging. You may want to speak to healthcare providers, therapists and teachers about their needs.
If you found this helpful
Please share with other friends or family members, or ask if your child or teen’s school or college is addressing some of the issues raised. You may also have ideas of your own to recommend or sources of advice that have helped those you care for including books, articles or videos. Feel free to add them in the comments.
Remember in times of crisis when we’re anxious we can neglect our selves so keep yourself fed, hydrated and rested. Your child/teen may also be at their most challenging when needing your love, reassurance and comfort. Be gentle with them – and yourself.
(This post was initially a Twitter thread posted on 25.02.22)