Helping Kids Understand the War in Ukraine
Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
The other day as I was sitting in the dentist chair, the dentist was talking about her kids watching the news in another room. Her youngest child, age 7, came to her very upset after hearing that Ukrainian males, ages 16 and older, were being separated from their families because they were needed to defend their country. “She came to me and asked me if her brother was going to have to fight in a war. I have a 16-year-old son and she was just so scared for him and for what she heard. I am just glad she came to me to talk about it.“
The war in Ukraine is now over two weeks in. Extensive national and international media coverage is showing the horrors of this war. Missiles strikes that are hitting residential areas, killing and injuring adults and children. People have to leave their homes now to find safety, shelter, and food in other countries. The pictures display the fear and anguish families are experiencing as they try to protect their children. They are scenes that have been experienced by refugee families from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and those at the southern border of the United States.
Even for adults and children who live far from Ukraine, breaking news alerts of frightening stories about death and suffering are delivered instantly to TV, phones and social media. Children and teens are exposed to these traumatic events in pictures and soundbites, often without a caring adult present to help process what is happening.
Experts and organizations have gathered resources that can help parents and guardians of young children and youth make sense of confusing and scary news reports. A recent NPR story, “What to say to kids when the news is scary”, outlines suggestions that can help a trusted adult prepare and protect children at these times:
Limit exposure to breaking news: adults need to be aware about what we are watching and listening to when our young children are around.
Talk with your kids and ask them what they have heard or how they are feeling about a news event they’ve seen or heard about. For young children, use art and storytelling to help them make meaning of what they are seeing and hearing
Talk to kids with facts and context and know that it is ok to not have all the answers to their questions about why something has happened.
As Fred Rogers famously said “look for the helpers who are helping one another” and be one of those helpers.
School classes in history and current events are also places where students and teachers discuss both this war as well as the many other violent conflicts that occur around the world. Some students may have relatives in Ukraine or have Ukrainian heritage. More broadly, other students will experience traumatic stress because the news reminds them of violence they or family members may have experienced in other foreign conflicts – or even here at home. Providing teachers and other school staff with ways to anticipate and structure discussions about disturbing news events is important so that students can safely express their feelings and receive reassurance. Education Week has two articles on how to discuss the Ukraine war, and the suggestions are useful for discussing similar news of violent conflicts elsewhere:
8 Resources Teachers Are Using to Discuss Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and How to Talk With Students About the Russia-Ukraine War: 5 Tips
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has compiled the following resources for parents, caregivers, teachers and clinicians in response to the war in Ukraine. Please visit the NCTSN site for further resources.
General Child Trauma Resources
Traumatic Separation and Refugee and Immigrant Children: Tips for Current Caregivers
Understanding Refugee Trauma: For School Personnel, For Mental Health Professionals, and For Primary Care Providers
Coping in Hard Times: Fact Sheet for Parents, Youth, and School Personnel
Helping Children with Traumatic Grief: Young Children, School-Age Children, and Teens