Explaining the war to a child

Children do not need all the answers, but presence and support, says counsellor Karen Decelis
While older children might be comfortable talking, younger children might not be able to express their feelings and fears through language. Photo: Shutterstock.com

On February 24, 2022, the news of Russia invading Ukraine travelled across the world. Having struggled with the health pandemic for the previous two years, people were incredulous that yet another catastrophe was about to unfold.

In times of global instability, people might feel anxious, angry, sad, scared or upset. It is natural that children hear and absorb adults’ anxieties and feed off it. It is important to reflect on this and work on ourselves as adults, to offer our children a sense of safety and security in these trying times.

There is no right or wrong way to tackle things. However, there are some general suggestions that might be helpful.

Children are nowadays exposed to various sources of information, including conversations at school, reading articles on Facebook, watching videos on TikTok or reading statuses on Facebook. They talk among themselves and build an image of war in their head. This might make them view the world in a negative way. Thus, it is important to have discussions at home in a safe and comforting way.

It is understandable that parents might want to protect their children from such horrible topics. However, it is important that parents are prepared to tackle the matter, if addressed.

Ignoring the topic might leave children feeling frightened and lost, which might affect their well-being. It is also important to look out for indications of children’s anxiety, such as change in eating/sleeping patterns, inexplicable tummy aches and headaches, and being more clingy than usual.

It is also important that as a parent, you figure out what message you want your children to learn before you start off the conversation. Some parents might tell their children that the war is far away and we, in Malta, are safe. Others might want to start a healthy discussion on politics and tell their children some facts about this war and how it originated.

It is okay if, as parents, you feel anxious. These are natural responses to such a difficult situation. Parents do not need to have all the answers. Some children might ask questions which you would not have the response to. You can think things through together. Children do not need someone with all the answers, they need our presence and support.

Here are some suggestions for how you can tackle the war discussion with your children:

1. Ask them how they are feeling

Ask your children if they are feeling scared or worried regarding the war. If they answer yes, reassure them, normalise their feelings and validate their concerns. If they say ‘no’, you are letting them know that if they eventually feel scared or worried, it is okay, and they can come to you with their thoughts and feelings.

2. Check in with your children

Rather than forcing them to talk about the war, check in with them to see what they know and how they are feeling. If they open up, listen to what they need to say. Some children might be suffering in silence. Thus, it is important to check in and let them lead the conversation. On the other hand, some children might not be interested in talking about it because they are not concerned. There is no need to force them to talk. Rather, reassure them that you are there for them.

3. Follow-up conversations

The war is something that is developing every day. You might, therefore, want to check in with your children to see if they have new things they want to talk about.

4. Use your knowledge about your children

No one knows your children better than you! Reflect and think about how best to talk to them. Be sensitive to their feelings and use age-appropriate approaches. A five-year-old child might understand things better through play, while a 12-year-old can understand if you talk to them. Be patient if they are repetitive. Some children are reassured through repetition.

5. Use reliable sources

Explain to your children that some things online are not reliable. Make sure you read information that is from a dependable news source. It is okay if you do not have all the answers. You might use this as an opportunity to research some information with your children.

6. Do not spread hate speech

Wars might bring various opinions. When talking to your children, try not to use negative words against a particular person or country. Speaking against a particular nationality might fuel your children to go to school and call students from that country/nationality names. Malta is a very multinational country and we need to be aware that there are children of various nationalities in our children’s schools. All children deserve to feel safe at school, and you, as a parent, are the lead example your children will follow.

7. Be aware of media and social media

Monitor what your children do on social media. There are videos and articles which are full of worrying headlines and alarming images. You might want to go through your children’s social media accounts to see what they are watching. When the children are under five years old, it might be a good idea not to watch news related to the war. With older children, work on having a positive enough relationship with your child, such that they feel comfortable to come to you if they see something that worries them.

8. Do not lie to your children

Children know, or will find out, if you are inventing information. They may consequently conclude that they cannot trust you in the future. Do not make unrealistic promises. It is okay to tell your child that they are safe in Malta. However, you  cannot promise that the war will stop or that no one will be hurt.

9. Help children express themselves

While older children might be comfortable talking, younger children might not be able to express their feelings and fears through language. Encourage them to show you how they are feeling through play or drawings. Spend time with them and let them show you what is going on inside their mind through their projective play.

10. Stick to a routine

It is important not to change structures and schedules children are used to. A structured day gives children stability and reassurance. Continue sending your children to school, extracurricular activities, and celebrating birthdays and special occasions.

11. Self-care

Although it is important to take care of your children, it is also vital to take care of yourself. If you are feeling anxious, it might be too hard for you to check in on your children. Make sure you have a good support system: friends and family with whom you can share your anxieties. Be mindful of how news on the war is affecting you. If you are feeling down reading information about the war, set boundaries with your loved ones. It is okay to tell your friends that you do not wish to talk about it.

12. Seek professional help

If you see that you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious, you might want to consider seeking professional help. It might be useful for you, as an adult, to speak to a counsellor to find ways in which you can feel more supported. If your child is very anxious, you can ask their school counsellor for support. The counsellor’s role would be to provide your child a safe space where they can process what is going on and find healthy ways to deal with their anxieties.

The war is beyond our control. What is in our control is how we deal with our thoughts and feelings about the war, and how we transmit a sense of safety and serenity to our children.

Karen Decelis is a warranted counsellor and a member of the Malta Association for the Counselling Profession.

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