How to talk to children about Russia's invasion of Ukraine

A child protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Credit: PA

It can be hard to know how to talk to children about what is happening in the world.

As the crisis unfolds in Ukraine, experts explain how parents can help children understand the events in an appropriate and empathetic way.

As a starting point, Natalie Costa, a children's confidence coach said it is important to follow your child's lead.

She said: "Meet them where they're at. If your child comes to you with a statement or questions, get curious and ask them more about it.

"We can easily fall into the trap of oversharing and giving too much information that children may not be able to comprehend or understand.

"Follow their lead and first take a moment to see what they know."

  • Should you talk to children about important, and devastating, world events?

Child communication expert Kavin Wadhar, said: “How old is the child, and how ready are they for the conversation?

“If they’re five years old and they haven’t heard anything about this anyway, there’s probably no need to force it upon them.

“But if they’re a little bit older and they’ve already heard things, then I wouldn’t shy away from engaging in the things going on in the world.”

Parenting author Liat Hughes Joshi, said: “They’re going to hear about it anyway, especially these days in our ever-connected world, with screens all over the place.”

She said it is important to give them the right information and help them work through their feelings, to avoid the “rumour mill of the playground” which can “take little bits of factual information and blow them out of proportion”.

She added: “This is a genuinely frightening situation anyway, so you don’t need to add some children’s hyperbole to make it frightening.

“The fact is, they’re going to be hearing about this at school, and one of your roles is to help them understand what is true and what isn’t true, give them perspective and reassure them as best you can.”

  • How can you approach the conversation?

One of the most important things is to ask open-ended questions and let them talk, according to Ms Hughes Joshi.

You could start conversations with something as simple as, "What have you heard about the situation in Ukraine?"

“We need to know what they have heard, to then be able to correct any misunderstanding.”

Mr Wadhar said: “It’s amazing how much children can talk and think when given the opportunity to do so.”

He recommends using it as an opportunity to exercise empathy, by asking children questions such as: "What can we do to help?"

A slightly older child who has a sense of the politics could exercise some critical thinking, experts say Credit: Jane Barlow/PA
  • Should you sanitise what is happening?

“It depends on age, and it depends on the child’s temperament as well,” said Ms Hughes Joshi. “[But] you can’t pretend there’s no war, you can’t take that sanitising too far.”

Her advice is to have a “factual, but reassuring” tone – and to avoid lying.

“If your child thinks you’re lying, they won’t be able to trust what you’re saying – and they need to be able to trust you.”

  • Are there any opportunities within these conversations?

A slightly older child who has a sense of the politics could exercise some critical thinking, Mr Wadhar said.

Adults could ask them: "What would you do if you were X, Y, Z? If you were (Ukrainian president Volodymyr) Zelenskyy? What would you do if you were (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson, or leaders flying over to Poland?"

“As devastating as everything is, it’s still an opportunity to help our children think about the way the world works, put themselves in the shoes of different people, and critically and analytically try and analyse the situation,” he said.

You could ask how they think we can help the situation Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA
  • What if you cannot answer their questions?

“As parents, we don’t need to tell them everything that’s going on – we should use resources around us to help, but then be there for the follow-up discussion,” Mr Wadhar said.

“If you don’t know the answer to their question, say: ‘I don’t know, but let’s look at it together, let’s research together’.

“(This) builds another skill, the ability to research, use Google properly, and fact-finding. If you don’t know something, it makes it a bit more positive, and also a shared activity if you figure it out together.”

  • How can you reassure children?

Mr Wadhar recommends reassuring children by saying things like: “We’re in the UK, a fair distance away from Ukraine and things going on there. We’re safe in that sense, physically separated.

“And (you can) talk to them about how we have really good people in charge, and the world is supporting Ukraine.”

Ms Hughes Joshi said: “If there’s a collection or making a donation, it can help children feel like they’re doing something, no matter how small, and that can make a difference.”

Leading by example can keep children calm too.

She added: “Plenty of adults are feeling anxious about this, too – and that’s completely understandable. I’m not saying pretend you’re not worried about it to your child, but try and tone down your own anxiety, and find other outlets for it.

“A child takes their cues from parents and other adults around them, so if you’re looking fairly calm about it, then they will feel calm, too.”

It is also worth making sure the news is not playing in the background all the time, because that might “stoke up their anxiety – they need a break from it”.

Ms Costa thinks: "Child friendly versions of the news can be a good option if children want to stay informed."

Leading by example can keep children calm too. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
  • What if children are getting inaccurate news and information from social media?

"Open communication with your child here is key, so be curious about what they have seen or heard," Ms Costa said.

"Encourage your child to develop the practice of questioning / be curious about what they are seeing and hearing, rather than taking things at face value (questioning where it’s from, what source - TikTok, Facebook etc).

"Share with them credible news sources and as always, keep the lines of communication open with them."