Talking to children about war is never easy, no matter their age. But having that difficult conversation can play a big role in shaping your child’s view of the world later. Tackling tough topics with your kids also gives them a safe place to turn with their questions, emotions and fears.
For guidance on how to talk to children about challenging topics like war, we turned to Dr. Arpit Aggarwal, a child and adult psychiatrist with MU Health Care. While there’s no right or wrong way to talk to your child about war, Dr. Aggarwal offers tips for successfully navigating the topic:
1. Follow Your Child’s Lead — Don’t Force the Issue
Every child is different when it comes to talking about serious issues. Some kids have a lot of questions and want to know everything possible. Others may not have a single concern or curiosity related to war. Then there will be the kids who live somewhere in the middle — they don’t exactly ask questions, but they’re clearly thinking about it. They may mention a discussion about the war at school or make a comment about something they saw on the news.
If you think your child’s been exposed to the topic of war, look for openings to start a conversation. When your older child makes a comment or your younger one asks a simple war-related question, use it as an opportunity to ask what they know about it or how they are feeling. Otherwise, wait until your child is ready to broach the subject.
2. Tailor Your Approach to the Child
Depending on your child’s age, maturity and temperament, difficult conversations may occur at different times and in different ways. While you can’t control when and how your child asks questions about war, you can adapt how you’ll approach the topic based on that individual child. Consider these factors:
Age and Developmental Level
Match your expectations and the language you use to your child’s age, as well as their emotional and intellectual development:
- Younger children and preadolescents: Kids under 12 tend to focus on how things affect their immediate world. The goal for parents of children this age should be to reassure them and make them feel safe and secure. Shield younger kids from disturbing images whenever possible since they may not be able to comprehend what they’re seeing or where it takes place.
- Adolescents: Teenagers are likely learning about the situation at school, online and through social media. But they also may have questions they are too embarrassed to ask elsewhere. Being a teen also entails a lot of image management — don’t be surprised if your kid takes a while to talk about what’s happening or initially masks any war-related anxiety.
As a parent, you know better than anyone whether your kid is cool as a cucumber or tends to be more of a worrywart. Children who have displayed anxiety in the past or recently lost a loved one may be at a higher risk for war-related distress. Bring any concerns about your child’s mental health to your doctor or a pediatric psychiatrist, especially if you notice changes in:
- School performance
Personal Connection to the War
If you are a military family or have relatives in a war-torn region, the topic of war may hit a little closer to home for your child. If possible, set up video calls with family living near a war zone. Seeing a loved one’s face (even virtually) can go a long way in easing anxiety. Organizations such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offer resources for both parents and children with military families to help them cope.
3. Answer Your Child’s Questions About War Honestly
If your child comes to you with questions about what’s happening in the world, you’ll know they’ve given the topic some thought. The last thing you want to do is sweep their questions and concerns under the carpet.
Instead, answer their questions openly, honestly and with facts. If you don’t have all the answers, that’s OK — you can work together to find them.
4. Remember Your Kids Are Watching
Kids learn to do almost everything — eating, dancing, brushing their teeth — from watching their parents. Older kids will look to you again to see how you react to news about the war. If what’s happening in the world makes you feel a certain way, let your teens and tweens know how you are feeling and why. It may open the door for a meaningful conversation.
Whenever possible, monitor your child’s exposure to the media and limit what younger children see and hear. Keep in mind, even if your kid isn’t exposed to news channels or war images, they will likely pick up on your mood if you’re anxious, angry or sad. Reassure younger children that how you are feeling has nothing to do with them.
5. Maintain a Supportive Environment
Your child may not choose to talk to you about the war — at least not right away. But it’s important for them to know they can come to you if needed. Create a safe and supportive environment by:
- Being available: Make it clear that you are happy to answer all your child’s questions.
- Continuing usual routines: The world may be feeling out of control to your child, so keeping things predictable at home can be comforting.
- Showing patience: You may have to answer the same question or address the same concern over and over, especially with a younger or more anxious child.
- Validating feelings: If your child shares any emotion related to the war, validate those feelings and reactions so they feel heard.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Concerned about your child’s mental health? Learn more about our Pediatric Psychiatry Services.