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Speaking With Your Child About the War in Ukraine

As Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine continues to take its devastating toll on the lives of so many people, our parents and caregivers may feel confused about what to share with their children and how to do so in an age-appropriate way.

At Bialik, this world issue has been addressed as a humanitarian crisis, with teachers being provided with age-appropriate educational resources for the conversations taking place in all grades, Junior Kindergarten through to Grade 8. Our school’s Student Council organized a Toonie Tuesday, collecting $3,002 that was donated to the UJA’s Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund. These funds are going towards supporting food and medicine needs, security grants, and refugees in transit. Many of our students are also witnessing their family’s efforts to support those affected by this invasion through the sending of goods and money, as well as hugs and empathy being shared with those nearby who have close ties.

What is taking place around us, while difficult to understand, cannot be ignored. As parents, we are the first people our children usually come to with questions and it can feel overwhelming to find the balance between responding honestly while ensuring feelings of safety. Sharing frightening truths, especially at a time that is already stressful — given the pandemic and increased antisemitism— is not easy. Nevertheless, an open explanation of the war provides assurance that your child has accurate information and that they can confidently approach you with any fears and worries. Below are points to consider when opening up the conversation with your children at any age, adapted from the American Psychological Association article:

  • Process your emotions first.
    Even our youngest children pick up on our feelings. Work through yours to ensure that you can speak calmly with your child.
  • Anticipate questions and be proactive.
    While you know your child best, try not to assume your child has not already heard about this. Prepare for how this information may trigger other events already known to your child. Some children may have a lot to ask while others may not feel comfortable, both of which are OK.
  • Share information.
    Often, especially with younger children, less is more. Stick to the facts when starting and use appropriate terms. Let your children’s questions guide you and share your feelings when it is relevant. You can adjust the details accordingly based on your child’s age. For example, younger children may be informed that Ukrainians had to quickly leave their homes in order to find safety. Older children may be more prepared to understand that war involves fighting and death. Allow your child to develop their own opinions and feelings, which may lead to perspective taking. Use this conversation to help your older children understand where they can find accurate media information. When posed with a question you do not have an answer for, you can look it up together.
  • Tell your children that they are safe.
    Understanding that there is a war taking place is scary. Reassure your child that this war is taking place in a different part of the world. Older children recognize the deadly consequences of war. Remind your child that they are safe. Provide empathy when your child expresses big feelings.
  • Discuss how the war affects your family.
    For families with relatives and friends in Ukraine, Russia, or neighbouring countries, a direct impact may be felt. It is OK to tell your children when you do not know about their safety and/or future. It is important to speak honestly and avoid statements that share your hopes but are guessing at the future. You can let your children know what you are doing to try to remain in contact and provide support. You and/or your child may know people who are from Ukraine or Russia. Emphasize that the actions of a country’s government do not necessarily reflect on the beliefs of the people who live there or are from there.
  • Focus on the helpers.
    Emphasize what is being done to support the people in Ukraine. There are people all over the world working to help.
  • Help kids be part of the solution.
    Show them how they can help. Remind them about the actions taken in school (e.g. Toonie Tuesday, letters written that were taken to Ukraine by the UJA).
  • Monitor media exposure.
    Turn off the TV when the news is on and keep the reporting content off your children’s screens. For older children who may have come across the news without a parent present — ask them what they may have seen and what questions they may have. Help ensure their information is accurate.
  • Seek outside support.
    If you see any changes in your child’s sleep, mood or general daily functioning, reach out to the school’s support team, contact your child’s pediatrician or consult a psychologist or social worker. Reach out to Bialik’s School Counsellors, Psychologist or members of administration if you feel your child would benefit from additional support. 

Dr. Dana David, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Bialik School Psychologist