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Stories | 03.29.22

Ukraine at Home: Talking to Children About War 

No matter which websites, newspapers, or social media outlets you look at, it’s impossible to ignore news about what is happening in Ukraine. But how do you talk about this challenging situation with loved ones – especially if they’re children? As the world watches this unprovoked attack, it is imperative adults are equipped with the right tools to speak with children about war.  

“Children are not immune to what’s happening in the world around them. You cannot assume they don’t know something terrible is happening because you haven’t talked to them about it,” says Marina Bluvshtein, Ph.D., LP; MA LMFT, Adler University faculty, and director for the Center for Adlerian Practice and Scholarship. “They are brilliant observers.” 

For parents, that means understanding what children are seeing and hearing impacts their feelings and thinking about war, their overall understanding of how the world works, and whether the world is a good place. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to talking about the current war, Bluvshtein has advice to help adults through these challenging conversations.  

A refugee herself, Bluvshtein was born in Russia, and her mother was born in Ukraine. She has seen the effects of wars and dictatorships firsthand. Now, she’s putting her personal experiences and professional expertise as an Adlerian psychologist to work in a new way. Partnering with Ukrainian colleagues, she’s providing cross-lingual and cross-cultural supervision to psychotherapists with clinical patients directly impacted by the current war.  

While specific approach depends on the child’s age, their personal and family experiences with war and mass trauma, the family’s immediate or generational ties to Ukraine or Russia, as well as other factors, she recommends:  

  • Even if you are not planning on discussing this topic with children, you should be prepared to at a moment’s notice. This is part of preparing them for the challenges of adulthood. 
  • When a child asks about the war, ask them first what they already know, what they think about what they know, and what they’re interested in learning more about.  
  • Stay within your child’s questions. Pace your response. Before sharing anything, ask yourself if you share a piece of information or an opinion. Is this what your child asked you about? 
  • Call things what they are – this is a war and has no other name – and make a distinction between governments and people. Spend time with your child to ensure they understand the difference.  
  • Find age-appropriate ways to describe what is going on in Ukraine. “War” is an abstract term, and children under 11, especially those with no personal or family experience, may have a difficult time processing a very complex and ever-evolving event.  
  • If your child is very anxious, validate their concerns, and keep doing it. You cannot overdose on validation of feelings.  
  • You cannot suddenly block their access to media but consider scheduling daily “digital breaks” or “war news breaks” for the whole family. Invite the child into the scheduling process and make them in charge of enforcing it and stick to it. Having something they have control over is a wonderful antidote to the sense of uncertainty we are all experiencing these days. 
  • Make sure that whatever you say is what you believe in. What you say should be congruent with your views, your family’s values, and what you are comfortable talking about. 
  • Don’t let your child go to bed without giving them a special time to talk to you and a special good night hug. These two are irreplaceable. 

“It will take months and years for the world to know the real tall of this war, but we know it will be higher than any one of us can imagine,” she said. “It is challenging for those watching the news from afar because we often feel like there is nothing – or nothing more – we can do. There is always something anyone of any age can do to promote peace and prevent wars. Gather your family around the dinner table and discuss what each family member does and can do more in promoting peace. Consider cooperative activities so children not only see you anxious and worried but also active and positive. Make sure your child has a chance to take the initiative and be in charge. 

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