It’s devastating waking up to news of war, violence and humanitarian crisis in the world. Whether we’re watching events unfold from afar or they’re happening just over the border, it affects us all. 

It’s easy to feel helpless, guilty for living in peace, carrying on with your life or for your privilege, to not know what to do or feel like you can’t do enough, to become overwhelmed with the grief and fear from of what you’re hearing and seeing.

As a parent, especially as a peaceful parent, it can be hard to manage your own emotions, as well as know how to talk to your child about what’s happening.

Children are affected by what they are seeing and hearing too. What they need most is to feel safe.

Here are some thoughts about how you can talk to your child in times of war and crisis, and help them feel safe.

1. Take care of yourself and manage your own emotions

Children need us to help process what they are seeing and hearing, as well as co-regulate their feelings. They tune into our emotions and seek comfort, security and calm in our body language, gaze, actions and tone of voice. 

They need us to be their source of emotional safety. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our feelings (it helps kids to know that we feel feelings too) but it’s important we regulate them, so that kids can tap into our calm and not our distress.

We also can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s necessary that we take care of our own emotional resources, so we can to provide co-regulation to our children.

That means taking time to check in with yourself and doing whatever helps you regulate and fill your cup, whether it’s getting fresh air, walking in nature, exercise, taking naps, meditation, reading a book, watching a movie or doing something fun with your kids. Think about something you’re grateful for and allow yourself to feel joy. Remember to breathe and stay hydrated.

See also:

5 Simple Habits to Help Centre Yourself in Difficult Times

Self-Care and Finding a New Normal in a Global Pandemic

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to other adults, find someone who will listen to you talk about how you’re feeling.

If you or your family have personally experienced trauma from war or conflict, news of war can be triggering. Take care of yourself and seek professional help. 

2. Check in with your child

Children pick up information about what’s happening in the world from all around them: at home, school, with friends, older siblings, when they’re out and about in public, and from the media. All the pieces likely won’t make a complete and accurate picture. Hearing about and seeing images of war and crisis, as well as not having all the information or inaccurate information, can be scary.

Find out what your child has seen and heard, and how they’re feeling about it. Children of different ages will need our support in different ways.

Under 5s

Very young children won’t likely be aware of and won’t be able to comprehend what’s happening – and they don’t need to. Be mindful of not listening to, watching or discussing the news around them. If they’re in preschool or kindergarten, pay attention to anything they may have picked up there. Offer comfort, safety and reassurance in short and simple terms, as necessary: you’re safe, there are adults taking care of it, and I’m here if you want a cuddle, feel scared or have a question. If your child has questions and wants to know more, offer an explanation in a way they can relate to and that’s reassuring: someone is trying to take something away from someone else, they don’t want them to take it, so they’re fighting, and other adults are trying to help sort it out. Inviting your child to draw a picture or role play with you can help you better understand what information they’re processing and how they’re feeling.

5-10 year olds

Older children will likely pick up that something’s happening but won’t have a full or accurate picture, or be able to fully comprehend the situation. They can have fears and questions, e.g. whether they are in danger or need to leave their home. They need us to help them fill the gaps, without dramatising or fuelling their fear, as well as correct misinformation. We can address their fears and help them feel safe by providing comfort and reassurance that everyone is doing all they can to stop the fighting, as well as talking about all the people who are helping. Children of this age might find it comforting to draw a picture, write a letter or take part in simple acts like coming together and lighting a candle for peace.

11-14 year olds

Pre and young teens will comprehend the situation more, as well as understand the wider context of human suffering. Their information will likely come from a wider range of sources, including the media or from school, with more geographical, historical, social or political context. They will need us as sounding boards, as well as to hold space for their feelings and give reassurances that they are safe. Children of this age will likely feel empathy towards those directly affected and want to help. We can help them get involved by looking for ways to support and take action, making donations and providing assistance together.

15 + years

Older teens are likely to actively look for information as they seek to piece together an understanding of what’s happening in the world, as well as form an opinion. Media sources will provide them with a platform for information and debate. They’ll also be looking closely at us for our opinions and perspectives, where we stand on what’s happening. Invite older teens to talk about what they think and feel about what they’re seeing and hearing, the debates they’re witnessing or are involved in. Take the opportunity to have conversations about reliable media sources and disinformation. Invite them to take action and get involved with helping those in need. Older teens also need space for their feelings, reassurance and to feel safe.

Find a time to talk to children when you’re already connected during the day and everyone’s relaxed, e.g. after lunch. Avoid talking about war, crisis or difficult topics right before bed.

3. Offer comfort and help them feel safe

What children need most is to feel safe. Safe from physical harm as well as emotional safety. Children experience things differently from us, they have active imaginations and irrational fears. 

Younger children may not be able to differentiate between what they are seeing and hearing and their immediate environment. They may be worried about being in danger, people dying or having to leave their home. Acts of solidarity, such as turning off the lights, may cause fear in children who have otherwise heard that blackouts are followed by bombing raids. Older children may read about and be fearful of but not yet able to assess the danger, e.g. of possible escalation.

We can provide emotional safety by calmly acknowledging, accepting and validating a child’s feelings, no matter if they seem irrational to us. It’s important we don’t dismiss, trivialise or dramatise a child’s feelings, or further fuel their fears. 

Describe what you understand about what your child knows and what they’re feeling: ‘You heard/saw/read that… Your friend told you… You’re worried that…’

Instead of saying, ‘You don’t have to be scared’, say ‘I understand that feels scary’.

Relating to your child’s feelings can also help them feel safe: ‘I feel scared sometimes too. Do you want to know what helps me when I feel scared?’

Let children know that all their feelings are ok and it’s safe to express them with you. Pay attention to changes in behaviour that may indicate stronger feelings than your child is able to talk about and respond compassionately, acknowledging, accepting and validating the underlying feelings.

Invite kids to help regulate their feelings with you by doing breathing exercises, going for walks or playing together.

4. Listen

Children need to be able to express and release their feelings. It’s the best way to prevent and mitigate a trauma response. Children are able to release their feelings when they are with a trusted adult who provides emotional safety and is willing to listen. 

Listen to your child without interrupting, correcting or wanting to make them feel better. They’ll feel better when they’re able to express their feelings fully, and you can fill any information gaps or correct misinformation once they’ve said everything they want to say.

With younger children, listen by observing their behaviour too. If they’re acting out, they are likely literally acting out their feelings. 

Remember that when a child is acting out, they’re reaching out.

5. Provide reassurance and information

Children need reassurance that they are safe and that we and other adults are taking care and doing what we can to stop the war, find solutions and help the people who are affected. 

For younger children, our calm presence, as well as having their feelings validated will likely be reassurance enough. Older children will benefit from more information about what is happening, as well as what we and they can do about it. 

It’s important we provide as much clear, accurate and factual information in an age-appropriate way as a child needs to feel reassured and have their questions answered. None or too little information means kids will fill the gaps themselves or go elsewhere for their information. Too much information can stoke new fears. Connection is the best protection. Kids are safer when they feel they can trust us and the communication lines are open.

It’s also important to be honest. It’s ok to not have all the answers and to say you don’t know but that you have reliable sources and are actively staying informed.  

Let your child know they can always come to you with questions or when they’re worried, and check in with them regularly to better understand what they know, from where, and what they’re feeling. Pay attention to how they respond to you, as well as to changes in their behaviour that may indicate they’re feeling anxious, need more reassurance or information.

6. Stay present and available

Children might not be able to talk about their feelings or know what questions they have when we ask them. They need more time than adults to process what they’ve seen, heard or experienced. Questions and responses sometimes come hours, days or even weeks later. 

Pay attention to their behaviour. Your child might not be able to tell you in words that they are scared or worried but their behaviour might!

Check in regularly. Be ready and make time when you can be present and available when your child wants to talk or has (more) questions. It’s so important that children know they can come to us at any time.

7. Be mindful of media consumption

Media coverage 24/7, though important for information, awareness, as well as providing help and support, can be emotionally overwhelming. 

Schedule a time or times during the day to keep up to date with events when you have the emotional resources (not before bed!). Take breaks so you have time to regulate your emotions in between.

Pay attention to your sources, fact check and be aware of disinformation.

Be mindful of watching or listening to the news around younger kids who don’t yet themselves have access to media, and be aware of where they may also be getting information, at kindergarten, school, sports, from friends, older siblings or extended family etc.

Talk to older kids with access to media about how the news is affecting you, why and how you are managing your media consumption. Ask them about the things they are seeing and hearing, so they’re not left alone with their questions and feelings. 

Talk to them about the importance of reliable sources and fact checking. Take the opportunity to do it together. 

Remind them that they can always turn media off when they see something upsetting or they feel overwhelmed, and that they can always talk to you. 

8. Help others together

The best antidote against feeling helpless or scared is to take action together.

As parents we can stand up for peace and against violence, aggression and injustice, share information and resources, flag and stop the spread of disinformation, as well as carry on parenting peacefully, so that our children know peace in themselves and in their hearts towards others. It’s our best hope and chance for a peaceful world of tomorrow.

Here are some things we can do with our kids:

  • Draw pictures
  • Write letters
  • Write poems
  • Light candles
  • Join peace gatherings and protests
  • Write to MPs
  • Support and donate to humanitarian organisations providing medical supplies, assistance for refugees, food parcels, drinking water and sanitation, help for children and families.
  • Show kindness and compassion to people directly affected

9. Stand up for peace and against prejudice and discrimination

When we talk about war and violence in the world, our children are watching and listening. Making blanket statements about countries and peoples can lead to prejudice, discrimination, isolation and bullying of children and their families based on their nationality, the language they speak, or their country of origin,  as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Instead, talk about aggressors and perpetrators by name, be clear that not everybody from a country supports what their leader or government is doing and lots of people are against war, violence and injustice.

Model and encourage children to show kindness, empathy, support and solidarity with everyone who wants peace and justice.

Blog image by m.iacobucci.tiscali.it