How to talk to kids about the war in Ukraine

When it comes to helping kids process difficult subjects like war and other tragedies, experts say, open and honest dialogue is critical — but it’s not easy. 

A few things to keep in mind while explaining conflict to children

A young girl wearing a Ukrainian floral headdress takes part in an anti-war protest, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, February 27, 2022. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

​​As a Ukrainian-Canadian, Ukraine holds a special place in Graham Roe's heart. 

His family immigrated to Manitoba in the early 1900s and, he says, when he was growing up, they still nurtured some of their ancestors' Ukrainian traditions. 

"They really kept their culture alive, and their language alive," said Roe. "And so I sort of witnessed that." 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Roe and his wife have had to explain the crisis to their two young daughters. 

As with other conflicts and injustices in his childrens' lifetimes, the pair have chosen not to tread too delicately.

"Children have all the emotions, they have incredible cognitive capabilities," said Roe. "It's really just trying to give them the facts where they can make their own conclusions." 

But he said those conversations are still difficult, especially for his oldest daughter, who has taken a deep interest in the family's heritage, studying Ukraine's history, even learning some Ukrainian on the language-learning app Duolingo. 

"The first few days of finding out about the invasion were quite emotional for her," said Roe. "She still has the tools of a 13-year-old to try to manage these stresses."

'Open, honest communication' 

When it comes to helping kids process difficult subjects like war and other tragedies, experts say open and honest dialogue is critical — but it's not easy. 

"It's going to depend on a number of factors, age being one, stage of maturity being another," Marnie Wedlake, a registered psychotherapist and assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western University told CBC's Ontario Morning.

"The other factor that's really important to consider is how much traumatic or adverse experience that child has already had in his or her life."

Wedlake warns parents against the "well-intentioned but misguided" approach of avoiding sensitive subjects like the war in Ukraine, assuming children haven't been exposed to it. 

"The exposure is so widespread and so pervasive with this Ukraine crisis that we want to assume that kids are exposed," she said. "Be proactive. Start the ball rolling. Ask questions: What do they know? What have they heard? What are their fears?"

'Avoidance is not a strategy' 

"That avoidance is not a strategy, it only makes things worse," Dillon Browne, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition. "We're naturally an empathic species, from a very early age, and it's likely, in response to the images and the stories that are emerging from Europe, that children are feeling a lot of negative emotion." 

He says informing kids about global events like the war in Ukraine helps them contextualize what they hear outside the home. It's also important to let children know that their feelings of grief are valid and that they're safe, particularly if they have experienced traumas in their own lives.

"There can be this triggering process that takes place," he said. "These are what we call traumatic reminders. So it's possible that hearing those air raid sirens on the TV that we're all hearing right now could be bringing people back to that emotionally scary place that they had experienced in the past." 

'Those were powerful moments' 

For others, being part of a community that shares your grief can also go a long way. 

Roe and his daughters recently attended a rally in support of Ukraine in Kitchener's Victoria Park.

He says standing next to Ukrainians, Ukrainian-Canadians and their supporters, helped his family, and his thirteen-year-old in particular, feel a bit more empowered.

"She made a sign, and she was happy to carry it," he said.

"Those were powerful, powerful, moments where you see — where you know — she can relate, and we can do a tiny, very tiny thing, to show our support."