Amid the unexpected events of the past 2 years, kids should know they can always expect love and reassurance

The Ukraine crisis is the latest anxiety-laden topic that parents are having to tackle with their children.

The invasion of Ukraine — and sudden re-emergence of a nuclear threat — has further raised anxiety for many

The Ukraine crisis is the latest anxiety-laden topic that parents are having to tackle with their children. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

To say the last two years have been difficult would be an understatement.

A pandemic and climate change events are enough to tackle, but with the invasion in Ukraine the threat of nuclear warfare has now been thrown into the mix.

I watched Red Dawn enough times in my formative years to be incredibly triggered by the thought of Russia using nuclear warheads, but it took my daughter's meltdown after she saw an Instagram post falsely warning about impending nuclear attacks on Canada for me to realize my kids' nerves were just as frayed as my own.

After two years of uncertainty, anxiety and tragedy — from pandemic, fire, flood and now war — have we all collectively reached the end of our rope? 

Cumulative trauma

I want to recognize right off the bat that any anxiety or stress that my family and most families here in the Lower Mainland are feeling is just a shadow of what people in Ukraine are facing. 

But there is no denying the cumulative effect of so much tragedy in a relatively small amount of time. Humans have a long and brutal history of war, disease and disaster and that trauma can deeply affect all families.

Jonathan Comers, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Florida International University, has extensively researched the effects of disasters and terrorism on children and families and the various ways that trauma can linger for years.

Comers says the past two years have been incredibly difficult for everyone and that needs to be recognized. 

"We can't ignore what we've all been going through and how complicated, challenging and devastating the last few years have been," he said.

As for the invasion of Ukraine, "the stakes are incredibly high here," he said.

"The potential of where this could lead is very unnerving for adults, let alone for kids who are trying to make sense of their world," he added.

While it's always a caregiver's first instinct to protect their kids from the awfulness around them, they're going to find out about it one way or another — and those difficult topics are always easier to understand and cope with if they are explained by someone who can provide not just information and context, but also unconditional love and support.

"In all of our research we find that kids who find out about major distressing events in the world from parents fare better than if they hear about it from the media or from their peers," Comers said.

Parents need boundaries, too

But parents also need to remember how much they have had to process themselves these past two years. Recognizing we have our own fears is completely normal and important.

Jana Buhlmann grew up surrounded by the threat of the Cold War and finds that recent events have perhaps affected her more than her 16-year-old daughter Tove.

While she wants to have open discussions, Buhlmann says she also needs some boundaries, "in terms of my own emotions, being able to say, 'Hey, you know what? It's too much for me to talk about this right now. This doesn't mean you can't continue to explore and learn ... but I need to take a break.'" 

For older kids like Tove, if they can process what they see and hear objectively, urging them to independently seek out information can actually help them. Tove, who has always been keenly interested in world events, finds that the more she knows, the less fear she feels. 

"I've always watched the news, that's something I've always done since I was six," Tove says. "I feel concerned, but I don't feel fear for myself. ... The more I know about [the situation in Ukraine], the more I can understand it." 

She says she has also been learning more about Ukrainian culture and language as a way to educate herself and find a connection to what's happening in eastern Europe. 

'Focus on the helpers'

While there have been a lot of dark days, it's important to find the brighter spots. Comers recommends trying to shift the attention away from a scary event and onto the people who step up during these times. 

"There are ... so many people helping and there are ways to share gratitude," Comer said.

"Maybe kids could write letters of thanks to the military or use it as an opportunity to learn more about a region of the world that is having conflict. Use this as an opportunity to focus on the helpers and how kids can be part of making the world a better place." 

Through the pandemic, the wildfires and flooding and now war in Ukraine, we've seen the worst of what the world can bring — along with the best in some people.

We have no idea how this latest global crisis will play out, or what's in store for us next. If nothing else, we've become experts in expecting the unexpected. But let's make sure our kids also expect to be supported and loved and reassured no matter what is unfolding around them. 


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.