Parents and caregivers may hesitate to speak with children about the war in Ukraine, but Professor Angela Evans in Brock’s Department of Psychology says that conversations on difficult events actually help protect a child’s well-being.
“Children whose parents avoid conversations about things like the pandemic or terrorist attacks in the news have been shown to display higher rates of anxiety, internalizing and externalizing behaviours and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to children whose parents engage in these conversations,” says Evans.
Data also shows that children tend to fare better in processing difficult news when it is a parent who shares the information, as opposed to a peer or a newscast.
Evans encourages parents to have age-appropriate conversations with children, meeting them where they are, and says this is possible even at young ages. She has some suggestions for tackling a tough conversation:
Start by asking what they know
“Find out what your child knows by asking them and letting them tell you how they feel and what they’re thinking about,” says Evans. “That’s true for all ages. If we don’t engage in that conversation, we don’t know what they’re thinking or what their fears might be — or if perhaps it isn’t bothering them at all.”
Ask the child to clarify what they mean and how they interpret your words
In the Social-Cognitive Development Lab, Evans has studied the ways adults and children interpret questions differently, both when they ask and when they answer. This can be a crucial element during a tough conversation.
“It’s OK to ask, ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘What do you think that means?,’ knowing that when we say the word ‘war’ that we envision one thing but children may envision something else,” says Evans. “It’s important to step back, take their perspective and understand what a child might be interpreting or misinterpreting.”
Avoid projecting your feelings by asking questions that don’t suggest an answer
“Often what we do as parents is layer our own perceptions and emotions on the conversation,” says Evans. “If we’re worried about something, we assume our kids are worried about it, but they may be just fine with it — or the opposite may be true, and our child is ruminating on a small detail that we thought was minor.”
Evans cautions that parents should try to ask open questions, such as, ‘How do you feel about what you saw or what I’ve told you?’ instead of, ‘Are you frightened?’ to ensure we don’t project our own emotions onto our children.
Choose a good time to talk
Parents and caregivers should turn off devices and choose a quiet time when no one is distracted, whether that’s after a meal or while doing a low-key activity like colouring. If a child asks a question at a busy time, make a specific plan to talk later.
“We need to make sure we’re in the right headspace to start a conversation with our children,” says Evans. “One thing that can be really important for kids in this context, talking about a war taking place in another country, is showing that you’re confident that they are currently safe and secure.”
She also notes that parents should anticipate having more than one conversation and feel comfortable going back to a child to say more or say things differently.
Protect kids from 24-7 news channels and feeds
Research has shown that constant media exposure to dramatic world events can deeply affect children and even cause symptoms of PTSD.
Evans encourages parents to keep TV news to a minimum and to provide children with age-appropriate news sources so they can learn about their world without being exposed to graphic imagery. Older kids and teens should also be monitored to ensure they aren’t livestreaming battle footage or stumbling across graphic images on social media.
Parents should also resist the urge to seek out information online during a conversation with a child so that they have time to process whatever images or information they find before sharing it in an age-appropriate way.
Offer an action item
Evans suggests that parents prepare a few concrete suggestions for age-appropriate actions in case their child expresses a desire to help or a feeling of powerlessness.
“Whether they want to donate a few dollars from their allowance or write a letter, positive actions can help kids cope with difficult situations,” says Evans. “Families can talk about if they want to seek out a children’s charity or support food security or find a local group that needs support.”