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Talking to your kids about the war in Ukraine


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The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world through the proverbial ringer these last two years. Now add the recent, devastating Russian assault on Ukraine. It’s difficult for adults to take in the relentless amount of sobering news. Just Imagine a child attempting to understand the same things.

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Should you shield children from what appears to be the world going off the rails? Or should you be open and honest, and explain to your little ones exactly what is going on.

It depends on the age of the child, but experts agree discussion is key.

Now that kids have more access to online information than ever, these world events can cause anxiety and fear in young children and teens, notes the website, Family Education (familyeducation.com.) “When a 7-year-old asks her mother, ‘are we going to be bombed?’ it can feel impossible to assure them everything is going to be alright,” notes the site.

What to do? Open up discussion immediately – and don’t shelter the children from the realities of war and conflict, although age-appropriate dialogue is key.

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It’s critical for parents to discuss what frightens their children – even if they are frightened themselves – without making things worse. Ask your children how much they know, and what exactly is upsetting them. Give you kids permission to have those feelings and talk about them.

“Context is key, but remember honesty is the best policy,” says well-known Canadian parenting expert, writer and podcaster, Samantha Kemp-Jackson. “It’s important to provide comfort but also be truthful and empathetic,” added the mother of four.

Kemp-Jackson says this is a good time to “teach and encourage practical and proven actions that allow your children to feel they are experiencing a level of control in an otherwise uncertain time.”

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Are kids getting the full picture? “They’re hearing about it, (and) we need to make sure information is correct — and that they aren’t immediately anxious we’re on the verge of World War III,” writes Amy Joyce in a recent Washington Post column, adding these world events – much like the Cuban Missile Crisis or 9/11 – may have an impact on young minds forever.

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Experts say different age groups need different explanations. “Very young children can’t always verbalize their anxieties… too much can lead to things like nightmares or bed wetting if this distress is not addressed,” notes the Family Education website.

For older kids, the war is as close as a swipe on an iPhone or tablet. Which makes opening up dialogue that much more crucial: “For parents of older kids who are accessing Ukraine news via TikTok or other social media, now is the time to get involved,” writes Joyce. “Treating this as something you’re figuring out together will keep them from feeling like they have to hide it from you.”

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Well-known parenting expert Samantha Kemp-Jackson
Well-known parenting expert Samantha Kemp-Jackson Photo by supplied /Samantha Kemp-Jackson, (www.multiplemayhemmamma.com)

Parenting expert Samantha Kemp-Jackson(multiplemayhemmamma.com) on the best way to talk to kids about war:

Q: Should children be exposed to war news?

A: I think it’s virtually impossible to shield kids from the reality of war and life in general in an age of social media. Our communications are digital and news travels fast over the ether. To ask if they should be exposed is to assume there’s a choice. We, as parents, no longer have one as digital sharing and exposure – deliberate or otherwise – is the reality for kids in 2022.

Q: What would be the best way of opening up discussion?

A: Asking a question and allowing the child to wade into the discussion on their terms is always a good tactic. For example, a parent could say “You’ve probably heard a lot about Ukraine in the news and online recently. What do you think about it?” This approach would allow the child to reveal what they know – or don’t know – about the situation. It also allows the parent to gauge what the appropriate response should be, and how to continue the discussion.

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Q: Can a child be traumatized when discussions of this nature take place?

A: Of course there is no perfect solution to the reality of world events. Again, it comes back to the age-appropriateness of the information delivered, as well as how it’s done. A younger child doesn’t have the processing ability to make sense out of the complexities of war, so a more simple overview  would be the most effective in helping them to understand. The older the child, the more capable they are of understanding and potentially becoming anxious and stressed about the situation. This is where a parent lets their child know they will do whatever it takes to help them through this time.

Q: What should a parent do if a child is really preoccupied with world events?

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A: Listen. Acknowledge. Be open. Comfort. Explain that while no one knows how things will go, one thing that you can promise them is you love them, are there for them and will protect them always.

Q: How can a child be assured this “bogeyman” is not going to go after them?

A: Remind them you’re there with them and will continue to protect them is a powerful message when delivered consistently. Putting things in context as well, for example, explaining where they are situated in relation to the conflict. While there’s no guarantee that things won’t change, explaining the physical distance may be of some comfort.

Q: Do you think video games have desensitized kids to actual conflict?

A: In some instances yes; for the most part, no. In the cases of kids who play hours of online and video games, there’s a level of surrealism that likely desensitizes them to some degree, but I don’t believe for a second that children are unaware or apathetic to very real threats that exist. War is never a game and kids can sense when something serious is afoot.

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