The Current

This Toronto teacher uses a photo of his mom, asleep in a Kyiv subway station, to help kids understand the war

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, one psychologist says talking to kids about the war should be simple, and focused on reassuring them.

Talking to kids about war should be simple, reassuring, says psychologist Ane Lemche

Toronto teacher Constantine Kosyachkov's mother is in Kyiv. When speaking to his students about the war, he shows them a picture of her sleeping in a subway station, to avoid Russian bombs. (Submitted by Constantine Kosyachkov)

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When students ask elementary school teacher Constantine Kosyachkov about the war in Ukraine, he uses a very personal item as a teaching aid — a picture of his mother sleeping on a subway floor in Kyiv.

"When you talk about the war that is abstract somewhere on the other part of the world, it does not relate to students," said Kosyachkov, who teaches grades 1 and 2 in Toronto.

"When you know someone who is in the subway because of the bombing, then it makes a whole difference," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

Kosyachkov was born and raised in Kyiv, but moved to Canada 15 years ago. He still has family in Ukraine, including his mother, who lives in downtown Kyiv, and runs to the subway for shelter when air sirens announced imminent bombing.

"She still may not make it because it's seven minutes' walk from her place to the subway, and if she really runs fast, she has a chance. If not, she might not."

Kosyachkov is juggling that concern for his mother's safety with concern for his students, and their anxieties about the war. They ask questions about why it's happening, and why it can't just be resolved. He said he's had good support from parents, and from Toronto District School Board, including the resources the board posted online.

LISTEN | Kids explain their thoughts and questions about the war

The UN human rights office said Tuesday that it had confirmed 406 civilian deaths, with 801 people injured since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, though it added the real toll is likely much higher. At least two million people have been displaced.

Most children will have heard something about the conflict by now, and that's why it's important to check in with them, said Ane Lemche, a psychologist and child counsellor with Save the Children.

"If you don't talk to kids about that, they will make up stories in their head and they will always be worse than what's actually going on," she said.

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Children need honesty, but also comfort: expert

Talking to children about the war can start with curiosity: asking them if they've heard about it, or what they think is happening, said Lemche, who is based in Copenhagen.

She said not all children will show an interest, which is normal. But where kids do have questions, Lemche suggested keeping the details limited, and focusing on reassurance.

"They need to be comforted. They need to know that, yes, there is a conflict," she said. "But, listen, lots of people are working very hard to end this conflict, and in the end, it's going to be OK."

If children are having a hard time talking about their emotions around the war, Lemche said drawing pictures or writing stories can help them express their fears.

Without guidance from adults, children might let their imaginations veer into frightening scenarios, said Ane Lemche, a psychologist with Save the Children. (Camilla Hey)

Older kids may be equipped to have more nuanced conversations, but discussions of potentially frightening scenarios, such as the threat of nuclear weapons, should be kept simple, she said.

A parent could explain that a nuclear missile is a kind of weapon, but that "right now, it's not used at all, because everybody knows it's not a good idea," she said.

"It's a balance between keeping it honest and actually providing some information that you might need to reassure your kid, but also not to open new avenues of things that might be scary, and might raise more questions," she said.

Parents also shouldn't feel they need to have all the answers, nor should they be afraid to reach out to other parents or teachers for support.

"If you are very overwhelmed by your own emotions, then you have the risk of giving that sense of being scared to your children," she said.

With no clear endpoint for the conflict, she advised that parents "focus on helping your kids be able to live their own lives and feel that it's OK … to be happy and thinking about something else."

Kosyachkov agreed, and said he tries to end discussions about the war on a positive note, giving his students a sense of hope that there are solutions out there.

"The war will not last forever and it will end, and we hope that people will be saved and Ukraine will be protected," he said.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Arianne Robinson and Meli Gumus.

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