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6 April, 2022.

Advice on speaking to kids about the war in Ukraine

We are now one month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the news, images, and stories have been overwhelming – for adults and children. The Family Counseling Center of Fulton County recently spoke with a few members of their Behavioral Health Clinic to learn more about how to best help children process everything they are seeing on the news.

1. Acknowledge and Monitor

Children of all ages have access to images, news, and reports across a broad spectrum of platforms these days – some of which parents may not even be aware of. Parents should know the platforms their children are using and set parent controls or limits for use with their child if necessary.

Acknowledging how anxiety can present is important too. A child may have excessive questions about the events they see on television and on social media. Are they more irritable? Avoiding things they once enjoyed such as television or the computer because they do not want to be around the news? Have there been changes in your child’s appetite or sleep?

“We have had so much happen to us over the last few years that it feels as if, at times, we can become desensitized to international crises,” notes Michelle Clark, Interim Clinic Director. “The parent may not be feeling anxious and therefore may not even consider filtering their discussions without realizing that their child is anxious.”

“Sitting down with your child and having a tough conversation about the war isn’t easy, but it will help an anxious child know that they are safe and able to get out their worries and concerns,” says Clark. Clark suggest acknowledging the danger people in Ukraine are facing and why, perhaps, they are fleeing the country while also concentrating on how your child is safe and protected at home. “Your child may be anxious because they want to help in some way. This is a great opportunity to find a creative and proactive option so that they feel as if they can contribute.”

Clark adds, “It’s important too to monitor our needs as parents. Are we anxious as well? Do we have supports to prevent our anxiety from spilling over?”

2. Help kids list what they can control and what they can’t

Stacey Kozak, a therapist at The Family Counseling Center’s Behavioral Health Clinic suggests that parents help children create a list of what they can and cannot control as a way to cope with the anxiety. The exercise is as simple as taking a piece of paper and drawing two circles – one small and a larger one around it. In the larger circle, list the worries they have and cannot control; in the smaller circle list the worries they can control, always remembering to keep the lists age appropriate. “With smaller children you can use the comparison of – you cannot control the weather but you can control putting on the purple socks that make you feel happy,” comments Kozak. Other examples include the idea that you may not be able to control the destruction of a family’s home (images we see daily) but you can work to help collect items for refugees therefore experiencing a positive action of helping.

3. Create an inventory of coping skills that work best for your child

Coping skills are methods individuals develop in order to deal with stressful situations. Kozak recommends that copings skills should hold a child’s interest, be developmentally appropriate, and also be transferrable therefore not attached to electronics. “You want to be able to implement coping skills in any kind of environment. Video games or a few moments on a tablet cannot be used at school, so low-tech options are best.”

The inventory of coping skills you develop with your child should hold their interest and have create an opportunity for them to ground their emotions and reconnect to the moment. Some examples include:

  • Getting out in nature to take a walk or to play
  • Spending time with a pet
  • Taking deep breaths and concentrating on how it feels to fill your lungs with air and then let it out
  • Listen to music
  • Sit in a quiet place and list things you see
  • Journaling

Recognizing that this time is hard for everyone is an important first step. We have had three years of pandemic life and are now pivoting to a humanitarian crisis that is instantly reported on via social media platforms. Everyone, including our children, are all being exposed to graphic images that show the carnage of war. Taking the time to acknowledge our fear and confusion, talking to our children about their fears and worries are important first steps to helping them process this important moment in history.