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How to talk to kids about the war in Ukraine

Jeremy Church, director of safe and caring schools for the North Vancouver School District, gives parents some tips on how to talk to children about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Talking to kids about hard things has always been part of the job for both parents and teachers. With images of a war-torn Ukraine and the suffering of refugees filling nightly newscasts and social-media feeds since the Russian invasion, the topic is again front and centre.

But while there has likely never been a war so instantly viewed in real time, having a compassionate, calm adult who can help kids and older teens make sense of what they’re seeing is crucial, said Jeremy Church, director of safe and healthy schools for the North Vancouver School District.

That doesn’t mean shying away from difficult topics like the war in Ukraine. It does mean talking to kids in an age-appropriate manner, and encouraging them to pay attention to what media they are accessing and how often, said Church.

While war in Ukraine is at the forefront now, said Church, it’s not the first time teachers and parents have had to wrestle with difficult topics – from the stabbing attack on seven people at the Lynn Valley Library in North Vancouver in March 2021, to flooding in the Fraser Valley this fall or wildfires in the summer.

“There’s never a shortage of hard conversations,” he said.

Meet kids where they're at

For younger children, it’s important to “meet kids where they’re at,” said Church, which may mean discussing the war if it’s coming up as a topic of conversation, but not pressing it on young children who are unaware of recent events.

Among older children, the topic is more likely to come up, said Church, and may be directly addressed in classes like high school social studies.

Teachers are being careful about how events are discussed – they may not know the family backgrounds of their students or if they have connections in the Ukraine or in Russia. There may also be others whose families have been impacted by wars in other parts of the world.

Encourage trusted news sources, ask questions about social media

For older children who may be accessing reports about the war online, encouraging them to choose trusted news sources, where reports from the war zone are being verified as much as possible and not sensationalized, is important, said Church.

Asking questions is one way into a conversation, he said.

Questions like: “What have you been seeing? I know you’re on TikTok. Are there images that have been unsettling to you?”

Take a break from the news

Suggest that taking a break from the news cycle and putting the phone down from time to time is also healthy, he said.

Look for the helpers

Often in terrible situations like war it can be helpful to “look for the helpers,” rather than focusing on the horror, said Church – “examples of people coming together to try to help each other.”

Focus on what you can do

Focusing on tangible things that can be done here – whether that is helping fundraise for humanitarian aid for Ukraine, or making a difference to vulnerable people here at home, can also be good ways to channel anxiety into something productive, he said.

Telling kids that it’s normal to be upset by traumatic events, or that you don’t have all the answers to questions about a complex situation, is also alright, said Church.

Be calm and compassionate

“The reality is there are going to be hard things in life that are outside of our control,” he said. “It’s important for us to be able to navigate emotions and mental health together.

“Our kids do look to us. How our kids are doing is often really deeply correlated to how we're doing.”

For additional pointers about talking to kids about the war, check out out these resources:

  • For tips from UNICEF about talking about war and conflict, click here.
  • For tips from the American Psychological Association about speaking to young children, click here, or for older children, click here.
  • For tips from Common Sense Media, click here.
  • For a variety of helpful information, gathered by the North Vancouver School District, click here.