How to talk to your kids about war

With daily reports of conflict in Ukraine, knowing what – and what not – to say to kids about war has never been more important.

It is with some experience I can utter the following words: parenting in 2022 is tough.

Not only are we still navigating the Covid-19 pandemic, but now the devastating conflict in Ukraine has sparked household talk about this might mean – and kids are curious creatures.

“If a nuclear bomb is set off, will it kill us too?” my 13-year-old has taken to asking at the dinner table.

“Can Russian planes fly all the way to Australia to kill us?” my eight-year-old asks as I tuck her into bed.

If you find yourself scrambling to answer similar questions, it helps to know how best to frame “the talk”.

How to frame “war talk” for kids

Quirky Kid child psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien says although it’s important to know what to say to your child, it’s equally important to know what not to say.

“Children can become distressed by overhearing victims of war speaking on the radio or by seeing disturbing images on the news, so the first step is limiting exposure to media where possible,” Dr O’Brien says.

Total Health Care clinical psychologist Anissa Mouti says if kids ask questions, answer in an age-appropriate manner using language they’ll understand.

“For younger kids, you can use analogies to help them understand, but older kids may be more prone to anxiety so keep your answers to the facts – ‘Yes, Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border’, and ‘Yes, there are many people fleeing Ukraine’ – but don’t give them more than necessary,” Anissa says.

Dr O’Brien agrees, adding that while it can be good to discuss the history between the two nations and what Putin’s angle is, it’s best to leave the carnage out of the conversation.

Arm yourself with facts

When there’s talk of war, it can be easy for overactive imaginations to play havoc with geography.

For this reason, Dr O’Brien recommends producing a world map to have handy for your discussion.

“Point out Russia and Ukraine, so your child can get a sense of where Australia is in relation to those countries and should they ask any hairy questions you don’t know the answer to, let them know you’ll get the facts and come straight back to them,” she says.

When your child is not with you, do your own research so that you’ve got the tools to soothe them when they ask questions.

Help kids find positive focus

Our job as parents is to find ways to focus less on the negative aspects and more on the good that can be achieved if we all band together.

“Kids can feel powerless in the face of something so gargantuan so you can help empower them by suggesting ways you can help Ukrainian refugees, for example,” Dr O’Brien explains.

“In my neighbourhood, we’ve had bake sales with proceeds going towards charities assisting Ukraine, and there’s a Go Fund Me page people can contribute to, to set up a hotel for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.”

Anissa says it is important to remind your children that no matter who started what, we should always show kindness and respect to other people.

“These are the times in which we remind our children the importance of empathy and peace,” she says.

Stay calm and carry on

Finally, remember that with all this talk of war, it’s important for your kids that you get a handle on any anxieties you may be harbouring.

“They can pick up on changes in your mood so if you’re feeling particularly anxious or sad, this can then impact how they’re feeling and interpreting their environment,” Dr O’Brien explains.

If you would like to speak with someone about your anxiety, visit Beyond Blue or the Black Dog Institute.

Written by Dilvin Yasa.