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How to talk to your kids about Russia's invasion of Ukraine

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, the images and information coming from the area are frightening and disturbing — and all the more alarming for kids and teens.

Listening, connecting and being honest are key, experts say

Photos like this one, of children in Ukraine displaced by war, can be particularly distressing to kids here. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, the images and information coming from the area are frightening and disturbing — and all the more alarming for kids and teens.

Photos and videos of crying, displaced and even injured children are being displayed on the news and social media, leaving kids across Canada working to process the distressing images and grappling with confusion about the conflict.

Lindsay Jones, the manager of mental health and psychosocial support with the Canadian Red Cross, says parents and caregivers can assume most kids, particularly school-aged children, have had some exposure to the war through social media, TV or podcasts — and that's an excellent place to start.

"And if we begin there we can then initiate discussions with them on how much they know, just creating that support — asking what they know, what they've heard — creating that space for them to ask questions they might have," she told CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin.

I think it's good for children to be aware of what's happening in Ukraine but it's also good for parents and caregivers to be a little more tuned in to what their children are listening to and watching, and offering a little more supervision where possible.— Lindsay Jones, Canadian Red Cross

"Depending on the age of the child, there may be more or less confusion about what's happening. But just connection with your child is so important in that regard, and validating those feelings they may be having — the fear, the confusion, the anxiety — because these are human responses to what we're seeing." 

Stephen Butler, a child clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, advises keeping it simple and straightforward. He suggests parents steer clear of offering too much information or too many details, focusing instead on the child and their thoughts or feelings.

"You really want to match your discussion and your messages to the age of the child and what they're able to understand," he said.

"Even for really young kids, you know preschoolers, starting with where the child is at really means getting them to express themselves so you really want to have them talking and so another general principle or guideline that I follow is you really want them talking a lot more than I'm talking … you really want to hear from them."

He said older kids and teenagers can likely sustain a longer conversation, but the principle is the same.

"You really want to be hearing from them as much as possible and then respond to that, rather than the person, the parent, talking to them for long periods of time."

How to talk to kids about the war in Ukraine

5 months ago
Duration 5:58
Lindsay Jones, the manager of mental health and psychosocial support with the Canadian Red Cross, chats with CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin about talking to kids about the ongoing conflict.

You don't need to have the answers

Butler said parents need to give themselves permission not to have all the answers, but instead aim to listen and offer support.

"It's an amazing world in many ways but it can be a difficult world and … we often just don't know or we know a little bit.… It's actually, I think, more important to be able to talk to and listen to our kids than to be experts, than to know the answers," he said.

"Kids, in my experience, don't need us to know everything. They don't need us to always know. And in fact, one of the things they're maybe looking to us for is to be able to understand, to accept their feelings, to help them feel secure."

Lindsay Jones, the manager of mental health and psychosocial support with the Canadian Red Cross, says parents should keep an eye out for signs of distress in their kids. (CBC)

Jones said parents and caregivers can turn to reliable and legitimate news sources so they're better able to answer questions, but stressed that that shouldn't be the primary focus of any conversations with their kids.

"The truth is, there may still be things parents don't know and answers that they don't have," she said. "What's more important is to connect with your child … more than getting every fact straight."

Watch for signs of distress, limit social media

The key, Butler said, is making sure you have a relationship in which your kids already know they can talk to you openly and honestly — and you can lay that groundwork just by showing an interest in who they are before you're faced with tough conversations.

Kids, in my experience, don't need us to know everything. They don't need us to always know.— Stephen Butler, child clinical psychologist

"It's kind of having this openness and this curiosity about the child's world— how they're thinking, what they're experiencing, what's important to them. I don't mean to sound over-simplistic but the best thing, I think, is you build that in every day," he said.

"It may sound simple, but I think that's the start of it all."

A Polish soldier holds a baby as refugees fleeing war in neighboring Ukraine arrive at the Medyka border crossing in Poland. Most kids in Canada have likely been exposed to the war through the news or social media, experts say. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

Jones said signs of distress, or what's called vicarious trauma, can differ depending on the age of the child. Younger kids, she said, might display regressions or have more tantrums while an older child or teen might be socially withdrawn or have trouble sleeping.

She advises parents to keep an eye out for what change looks like in their specific child.

"So [a] significant change for the worse will give you a better indication of how your child is coping. And if you see big changes, it's good to check in with them and if you're really concerned, consult your medical provider."

Social media can play a role in enhancing exposure to trauma, she said, so parents and caregivers should limit exposure in general but especially during an unfolding crisis.

"Now more than ever, we're seeing a generation of young people that are so deeply connected to the world — and I think there's a lot of good in that. But that also comes with a risk of them being inundated with stories like this," she said.

"I think it's good for children to be aware of what's happening in Ukraine but it's also good for parents and caregivers to be a little more tuned in to what their children are listening to and watching, and offering a little more supervision where possible."

Jones said the fundraising efforts taking place in schools and in communities across the country give kids a way to take positive action rather than feeling overwhelmed.

"It's wonderful to engage children in part of the solution to this, even if it's in a very small way," she said.

"These are all great ways for kids to feel less helpless and powerless in this situation which can help their overall coping and mental health in this context."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devon Goodsell

Digital senior producer, CBC P.E.I.

Devon Goodsell is a producer with CBC Prince Edward Island. She previously worked as a producer at the national CBCNews.ca desk in Toronto, and as a reporter at CBC Vancouver. The CBC P.E.I. team most recently took home two east region Radio Television Digital News Association Canada awards, including overall excellence in digital.

With files from CBC News: Compass and Jessica Doria-Brown

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