How To Talk With Your Children about War

By Jackson Greer

You never know how talking about war might unlock a different view or perspective for both you and your children. Beyond their personal development, your children will benefit in their relationship with you as you show consistent empathy, understanding, and support for them.

A normal Thursday morning quickly morphed into a day full of uncertainty and worry for a 13 year old girl. A few hours after arriving at school, Melissa walked to class overhearing hallway chatter of something unfamiliar. Her friends, and even some teachers, scrolled through their phones and whispered phrases like “war,”invasion,” and “sanctions.” Melissa wasn’t used to hearing those conversations at school, so she could sense something was wrong.

As her teacher began class, she noticed an unusual headline across the screen. “Russia Invades Ukraine.” Melissa knew a few things about Russia, but she wasn’t quite sure where Ukraine was. After the bell rang, her teacher quieted the class and began explaining the news article.

While he spoke, Melissa struggled to keep up. She tried her best to put the pieces together, but it didn’t make sense. A dictator. Murdering innocent people. Nuclear war. The potential of World War III.

Melissa felt overwhelmed and alone. Her friends were nodding along and continuing to whisper to each other. She didn’t know who could answer her questions, so she stayed silent and thought to herself: Is everything okay? Am I going to die too?

Where Do I Start?

Depending on your children’s age and stage of life, difficult conversations might occur at different times. Sometimes these topics arise organically in conversations at school or with friends. Other times, you can control these discussions with your children in the safety and comfort of home.

Between the recent health pandemic and natural disasters, the past few years have provided a variety of difficult topics for children and parents to discuss. Some conversations are products of the moment, like the Covid-19 pandemic. Other topics stretch throughout generations and history. Unfortunately, war is one of those realities of human history that forces families to confront difficult issues. 

Knowing how to talk to your children about war is certainly a daunting task. With constant exposure through social media, it’s likely your children interact with multiple opinions about news before you even get a chance to talk with them.

However, it’s important that you do. Perhaps even more important is that you begin by asking questions rather than immediately launching into a speech containing all of your opinions about war and government.

5 Principles to Use When Talking with Your Children about War

Talking with your children about war depends on their age, stage of life, and understanding of complex topics such as government, history, and leadership. Before you begin your conversation, consider how you will approach your child. Then, you can think through these five principles when talking to your children about war.

1. Ask Questions

If you think your child is already exposed to conversations about war, find a quiet moment to check in with them. Maybe after dinner or before bedtime. In these moments, create a safe space for your children to reflect and share their thoughts.

Ask questions like “What have you heard about ____?” Or “How does _____ make you feel?” Choose questions that are open-ended and allow your child to speak freely. In conversations about war, your goal should include understanding your child’s feelings and thoughts, as well as what they’re seeing and hearing.

2. Let Your Children Guide the Conversation

As you allow your child to ask questions, they will naturally guide the conversation. These check-in conversations allow you to fully grasp their understanding of war and the specific situations within.

Check-ins also allow you to debunk any misconceptions your children might have. This is critical in a world defined by social media. Sometimes, introducing visual elements such as a map can help your children picture the situation better. As you provide facts and context, ensure that you are still prioritising your children’s thoughts and feelings above your own emotions and opinions on war issues.

3. Be Cautious about What You Show Your Children

Even though you can’t always control what your children see, you can limit their exposure to news and social media through appropriate boundaries. If you need a starting place, try to not let your children experience the news without you.

As news outlets feature graphic content warnings and images, consider muting or turning off the TV in these moments. If there’s any terminology or war vocabulary that’s confusing to your children, take the opportunity to provide definitions. If social media proves to be problematic for your older children, have a conversation with them about what they’re seeing, who they’re following, and the why behind both. 

4. Avoid Labels

In talking with our children about war, it’s easier than you think to quickly slip into labelling one side as the “good guys” and the other as the “bad guys.” When your children ask “why bad things happen” it’s critical to help them understand the difference between the bad thing that happened, and the people involved.

Labelling entire people groups or nations as “bad” or “evil” unnecessarily perpetuates fear or confusion for your children. Regardless of the war or situation, not every single individual from that country or nation is involved with nor agrees with their country’s decisions.

Instead of choosing labels, be comfortable with using the phrase: “I don’t know.” As a parent, your honesty and admission of not knowing everything will prove far more valuable than attempting to have an answer for every single question from your child. 

5. Focus on the “Helpers”

When something scary happens, there are always those who try to help. Especially in times of war, there are individuals committed to helping those in danger. Whether it’s simple gatherings of support or donation efforts, you can find stories focused on the positive service of those in need.

If you decide to watch the news with your children or read articles online, consider finding stories describing the positive actions of heroes and helpers. In the midst of violence, search for messages centred on hope and unity. Then, if the conversation leads this way, discuss how your family can also contribute your help.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Know that your children might ask if you’re worried about war and its effect on your family’s life. Prioritise honesty, but don’t remain rooted in fear or worry. 

As a parent, your tone and discernment will be critical to the outcome of these conversations with your children. Talking about war with your children requires an investment of your attention and emotion. Going forward one of the most important parts is to continue to provide a space for listening and asking questions.

Final Thoughts on Talking with Your Children about War

Whether it’s the evolving situation between Russia and Ukraine or a future situation we don’t know about yet, talking to your children about war is a responsibility for parents to take seriously. It’s natural for your children to feel anxious and confused, even upset. But know that the topic of war can affect children in different ways.

As you monitor your own emotional state, don’t neglect your children’s emotions and mental health. Keep track of how often your family discusses the topic of war. Set appropriate boundaries for these conversations. More importantly, observe the tone of these conversations to ensure that your collective focus is love and the positive actions of the “helpers” across the world rather than on fear or worry.

Finally, don’t ignore this topic with your children. You never know how talking about war might unlock a different view or perspective for both you and your children. Beyond their personal development, your children will benefit in their relationship with you as you show consistent empathy, understanding, and support for them. When you approach talking to your children about war in these ways, you can help children like Melissa replace feelings of loneliness and worry with confidence and trust.

​© 2022 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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