The Invasion of Ukraine: Conversations with our Children | News and events

The Invasion of Ukraine: Conversations with our Children

Dr Beth Mosley

Dr Beth Mosley MBE (Consultant Clinical Psychologist)

As a Mother and a mental health professional, like the rest of the world, I have been shocked about the devastating situation in Ukraine. Over the week I have heard the voices of the people of Ukraine, seen the images of terror and destruction and felt many emotions, including sadness, anger, fear and admiration for the Ukrainian people and those assisting them. But how do I talk to my three very different children about this war in a way that helps them make sense of what is happening whilst not disproportionately increasing anxieties (both theirs and mine)?

Firstly, it is good to talk. If we avoid the topic, we will not be helping our children to share their understanding of what is happening and make sense of the feelings they might have. Giving our children a safe and supportive space to do this will help them both process difficult feelings as well as ensure that any misinformation or misunderstandings can be addressed.

Secondly, how we talk is important. Right place, right time, right pace. No matter what their age, our children value more than anything our undivided attention and feeling properly listened to. When our children feel distressed or confused someone listening to them and validating their difficult feelings without judgement, helps them feel comforted and safe. Open and honest conversations are most likely to happen when we are feeling calm and not under pressure. So try to direct your children to having these conversations at points in the day when you not dealing with competing demands. Explain to your child, “it’s really difficult to talk right now as we have to get to school, but let’s talk about this tonight after dinner when I have more time to listen properly”. Find the time of day that works in your family with minimal distractions or interruptions.

When talking with your child and answering their questions, think about your child’s age. Children under 7 are likely to benefit from simple information they can relate to. Try to keep it simple and remember they will take their lead from you, so managing your own feelings will help them feel more contained. My youngest son is not looking for information on the war and is happy focusing on what is important to him right now (largely Minecraft!); but I am aware he might need a bit more quality time with me than usual, which may be enough to contain any extra anxieties.

With older children, you may like to ask them what they have been hearing or thinking about the war. My 12-year old daughter has been following the news on her phone and feels afraid about possible danger to herself, friends and family. Again, listening carefully to these worries and explaining that it is normal to feel these feelings helps your child feel understood and comforted. Correcting misunderstandings, providing reassurance and answering questions honestly, but without catastrophising is important. It’s okay to say you don’t know all the answers. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the range of emotions. Think together about how you might cope with these big feelings. Provide reassurance that adults are working hard to stop the war and look after the people who have been affected by it.

As our children get older, they tend to have a broader world view, so we may find ourselves having more in-depth conversations with our adolescents about humanity, injustice and what this means for the world. I have found my 17-year old appreciates me being around a bit later in the evening, when preparing a snack, to chat through some of the events he has heard about during the day. You may find they have quite strong feelings and opinions. This is okay. It is really healthy and helpful to have these supportive conversations as it enables our children to make sense of their own feelings as well as others and learn about their values and what’s important to them.

Thirdly, manage the exposure and time spent on news stories. As our children get older, we have very little control over the information they access. If your child has a smartphone it is likely they will see information through social media and news updates, as well as doing their own research. We, like them, might have to work hard to look after ourselves by not constantly looking at the news. Helping our children make sense of the information they may have seen and supporting them limit any “doomscrolling” is important. Simple things like turning off phones or not having them in bedrooms at night can be helpful to protect sleep. Also, consider limiting the amount of time looking at social media and the news to certain times of day. Be mindful of having the news on in the background. Try to give yourself and your family time away from this and ensure you continue doing the activities you know help you relax and make you feel good. Your children will take the lead from you, so looking after yourself is critical.

Finally, turn feelings into helpful actions. It’s important to remember that feelings tell us something important about what is going on in our world. They encourage us to take action. If we feel afraid, we seek safety or comfort, if we feel angry, we look to find a way to correct an injustice. Focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do, can be really helpful. Staying connected to others and listening to the stories of how people have helped those in need throughout this crisis can be really valuable to remind ourselves of the power of kindness and hope even in the most terrible situations. Your child might like to help in some way by getting involved with fundraising or other supportive activities. Even the smallest of positive things can make a difference.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support or help if you are struggling or worried about your child. These free parent workshops may be helpful in supporting you with supporting your children .

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