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Talking About War with Our Kids

Our kids are paying attention to the stories of children and families fleeing Ukraine. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that half a million children – the equivalent of almost one out of every three children in Indiana – were displaced from their homes in the conflict’s first seven days. As of Saturday, March 5, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that more than 1.3 million Ukrainians had escaped to neighboring countries. What we are witnessing is one of the fastest-moving refugee crises since the end of the second World War.

As our children learn about the tragedies facing Ukrainian children, how should we be talking to them about what’s happening now and about prior wars? Should we shield our children from the escalating tensions and its human impact? Should we engage them in discussions? What is the right time and approach? How we engage with our kids about global conflicts is important not only in these heated times but also in shaping their understanding of threats to human rights and democracy.

Today, children of many ages consume a wide range of media, including social media images. They are naturally curious about what is going on in the world around them, and we want to encourage that curiosity. It is also understandable that our children and youth may react with feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. We can play important roles in helping children process what is happening by adjusting the discussions to match their developmental stage, scaffolding the scope of the discussions based on the age of the child or young person.

Even as adults, it can be hard to select credible news sources and digest the rapidly changing events of this conflict. While there is no single “right” way to discuss wars or refugee crises, there is guidance available on ways to start teaching children about human rights, safety, compassion, and war. UNICEF published tips on talking to children about conflict and war, including:


  1. Find out what they know and how they feel. Pick a time and setting that is most comfortable for each child. Listen to the information they have and be prepared to correct inaccuracies or misinformation. Validate their feelings, seeking to understand the root of their concerns or desires to act.
  2. Keep it calm and age appropriate. Adjust your language to the age of the child, responding to questions and concerns with direct, fact-based information. It can be very helpful to remind children and youth that there are many adults working on solving the conflict.
  3. Spread compassion, not stigma. Conflict can often bring with it prejudice and discrimination, whether against people or a country. Remind children and youth that everyone deserves to feel safe. Use discussions to build compassion for those forced to flee, reminding kids that refugees are all humans deserving of care and compassion.
  4. Focus on the helpers. Share stories of courage, kindness, and demonstrations of support. Anticipate that taking action appeals to many kids. You can be prepared to respond by looking for options that may fit your child’s level of interest.
  5. Close conversations with care and continue to check in. Intentionally and periodically remind the young person that you are available to hold additional conversations whenever they feel one is needed.
  6. Limit the flood of news. For younger children, limit their exposure to the endless news cycle. For middle and high schoolers, this is another opportunity to talk about trusted news sources.

When news upsets or scares kids, adults can help by acknowledging and listening to their concerns. Do your best to meet each child where they are, developmentally and emotionally. It is important to hear and validate their questions, fears, and emotions.

Do not worry if you do not have all the answers. What is happening in Ukraine is frightening for many adults and children. By having open and honest conversations with our children, we can help them process what it means to be part of a global, caring community.



About the Indiana Youth Institute :

For over three decades, Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings’, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about IYI, visit www.iyi.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.