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How to Talk With a Child About War

Tips and ideas to create a sense of safety in an essentially unsafe world.

Key points

  • It is hard to talk with a child about war but you can help them to learn and to feel taken care of.
  • It is crucial to take care of your own reactions to war before talking with a child about it.
  • Help your child to know that there are many people working to help the injured and to stop the fighting.

Many people across the world are feeling the impact of the new onset of war in Israel, along with those affected by the ongoing war in Ukraine. It is hard enough for adults to process such violence and vitriol, but it may be especially difficult to explain to children. Following are a few tips on how to approach the conversation and care for your child and yourself in the face of scary and disturbing events.

For yourself, here is what we recommend and why:

1. Listen to yourself. First and foremost, take time, even if can only be a few minutes in your busy day, to check in with your own reactions. What are your feelings about what is happening? What are your concerns about talking with your child? What do you need for comfort? Sorting out your own reactions helps you to be steady and sturdy when talking with your child, able to focus on what they are saying — and not saying. Your child feels comforted by your inner centeredness even if you're expressing that you are feeling anger or other difficult emotions.

2. Limit your news intake. You may want to or feel the need to know what is going on. But you can find out without checking social media feeds and news outlets all day long. The information and the images can be overwhelming. Your nervous system will take it in more evenly if you limit yourself to a few times during the day when you will access news, knowing that the rest of the time, you will likely be informed of any huge shifts in what is happening. This also gives your nervous system and body time to refuel in between immersions in disturbing information.

3. Connect with people. This could include family, friends, clergy, a therapist, or anyone else you find supportive. When you feel supported, you can be stronger when talking with your child. This also helps you to listen during a conversation with less of your own inner noise.

The following are recommendations for helping your child.

1. To have a conversation about war, find a quiet, uninterrupted moment with no screens, not near bedtime, at a moment when you can be with your child for a while. Be only truthful but be aware of the impace the information can have on your child. This entails giving information step by step and listening for reaction, asking if there are questions, and then proceeding to answer only what your child asks and not more. If you create a space where your child feels able to speak freely, they will ask follow-up questions as they occur to them. It may be hard to fathom a message of calm and safety in a world in which safety is hard to guarantee but to your child, you are the most important source of safety. If you are sturdy, they will feel safer.

2. Limit your child’s exposure to the news. There are graphic and violent images being shown on social media and news outlets. These images will not help your child to understand events, as they are too overwhelming. You can find child-friendly sources of news if your child wants to look online; it's best if you search with them and provide space for discussion as you look.

3. Connect your child with caring people in their community. Communicate with their teacher about how they are doing. Your child could talk with a clergy member or a therapist. Continue your child’s social activities with other children from school or other activities.

4. Maintain routines. Your child will find comfort in the predictability of routine when the larger world seems especially unpredictable.

5. Look for the helpers. This is Fred Rogers’s wise advice. In every situation of harm and danger there are people who step up to help: ambulance drivers, those collecting needed goods to donate, friends and family who make room in their homes for people who have been dislocated. Point these out to your child. This shows them that the world is neither all good nor all bad at any given moment and that people will be there to help in times of need. Anne Frank wrote, “I still believe, despite everything, that people are truly good at heart.” It is a comfort to recognize that there is much goodness in the world even as we recognize suffering.

6. Look for ways that you and your child can be helpers. Can you donate even a dollar to help fund purchases of things that those at war are lacking? Can you package goods with your local community center or house of worship? Can you write letters to political figures? Becoming a helper is an antidote to the feeling of helplessness you and your child may feel about other people suffering.

7. Show your child that while there are dangers in the world, in this moment, they are safe with you. You are together. It helps your child to let them know about the things that you do to help keep them and yourself safe.

These are difficult times. There are no easy answers for how to understand or what to do in the face of cruelty. We hope that these few tips can be of help. The way through is connection to loved ones. Your ability to be present, honest and calm will go a long way toward helping your child feel safer.

More from Elena Lister, MD and Michael Schwartzman, Ph.D., ABPP
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