Talking to our children about War

Posted by iChild, March 03, 2022 8:38 PM

Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. He shares his advice on talking to our children about war, particularly following the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine:

A key thing to understand about our kids is that we can’t shield them completely from reality, we can only give them psychological, emotional, and practical tools to manage their response to what’s happening. This has been true all through the pandemic and now is true during the invasion of Ukraine by Putin. The help and tools we give our children will very much depend on their age and developmental needs, so you will need to adapt your responses on this basis if you have a tribe of varying ages rather than just one! The basic rule is, the younger the child, the less likely it is they will notice specifics outside of their immediate interests such as you, and other needs such as food, shelter, warmth stimulation, etc. The older the child, the more able they are to communicate and socialise more broadly and the more they will notice events in the world and be impacted by them.

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Children that have access to the internet (essentially every single child you know), the more they will notice what is happening in the Ukraine - with the caveat above of age. So, it's best to think about that and how you will frame their experiences rather than leave them to try to make sense of it alone or with their friends. Essentially be proactive rather than avoidant. Set aside time in the family to discuss what they understand about the situation and their fears for you, themselves, the kids in Ukraine, etc. Try not to look for fact checking and challenging of information. What they know about the situation is less important than what they feel about the situation. Being able to share difficult feelings if they have them and having those feelings validated is much more important than trying to sort through the fog of war or trying to give false assurances about the outcomes in Ukraine. As we did with the pandemic, let go of trying to figure out if it will all be okay and focus much more on the experience of here and now and being able to give and receive emotional comfort. 

Key in all of this is how you model in your behaviour (for your kids to copy) the response you would like to see in them. It’s okay to be upset about the horrible things happening, to have difficult feelings about it, but it’s also something we can deal with, and we can and should get on with our lives. Ensuring a good routine around daily life is always the best medicine for kids:

- Good sleep hygiene
- Family meals at regular times
- Homework completed 
- Fun activities together as a family and also in separate peer groups 
- Attending school
- Getting on with work life
- Planning for the future as though it’s going to be alright (where are you going for summer holidays, whose birthdays are coming up etc)

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Additionally, you and your kids may be moved to take action to help. In the same way that we have advised for dealing with environmental anxiety, supporting your children in taking action can positively help them and also others. Is there a group collecting donations that you can attend as a family? Are there public events you can attend that show solidarity?  Do you want to put a Ukrainian flag in your window as a sign of support? The invasion and war is horrible, and our collective response to censure that behaviour on the part of Putin and show solidarity is a wholly positive reaction. In this we have to discuss with our children that this is not about Russia per se, it’s about its political leaders. Some children with Russian parents in the UK have been facing bullying for this invasion and it’s important we model support for those kids. If we don’t, we tell our kids that gang rules and mob rules apply. Given that is exactly the behaviour we are seeing from Putin, this could send mixed and confusing signals to our kids. We are asserting in our responses as adults to this situation that rules do and should apply to behaviour, upholding that is fundamentally what will re-assure our kids.

Talk to your children’s schools and nurseries. It’s pretty certain they will be dealing with these issues and mirroring the messages they are giving to their pupils and to your children will ensure consistency and enhance the feelings that we are dealing with in containing the situation. 

If you are still concerned your kid is reacting in a disturbed way to these events, here are a few signs to look out for you may need to do some extra support:

- disturbed sleep patterns
- significant changes to appetite and or eating patterns
- significant changes to mood or outlook
- isolation and withdrawal
- unusual bouts of anger or irritability 
- regressed behaviours (re-emergence of thumb sucking our toileting issues, becoming clingy)
- unexplained drop off in performance at school
- concentration issues 

If you see maybe several of these signs, think about increasing general emotional support through more hugs, more one to one time, more special treats and activities and mirroring of emotional sharing through conversations, you could start with ‘I am so sad about seeing those kids being frightened in Ukraine. It’s so sad and I’m so happy it’s not happening here. I wish we could help more’ and so on. If after a short period of this the unhappy behaviours in your kid persists, then have a chat with your GP for suggestions, alert their school who have better access to psychological support professionals and take guidance from these processionals.

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By Noel McDermott:  Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home – www.noelcdermott.net

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