Talking to Kids & Teens About Difficult Topics

As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, seemingly in front of our global community, many adults find themselves feeling stressed, anxious, and on edge – even those without a personal connection to Ukraine. Similarly, children and teens are also experiencing fear, frustration, and helplessness. And with less life experience and independence than adults, young people need help navigating news about the crisis. This particular situation has motivated us at Mindful Mental Health Counseling & Wellness to open up the conversation about having discussions about all kinds of challenging topics with children and young people. Here, we offer advice for helping kids manage their fears and concerns, from preschool through the teenage years

Process your emotions first

Children pick up cues about how to feel based on their observations and interactions with their parents. If you’re feeling stressed, sad, or angry, it’s best to first work through those feelings so that you can talk calmly with your child. Parents should be aware that even infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children can pick up on anxiety in their family members, so parents should also be careful with adult conversations that children might overhear.

As much as adults may try to avoid difficult topics, children often learn or know when something sad or scary happens. If adults don’t talk to them about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. Rather than shielding children from the dangers, violence or tragedies around us, adults can talk to kids about what is happening in order to facilitate healthy processing of difficult topics. No matter how much we try to protect our young people, children’s lives are touched by trauma on a regular basis. The conversation may not seem easy, but taking a proactive stance and discussing difficult events in age-appropriate language can help a child feel safer and more secure. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.

Guiding the conversation

Anticipate questions and be proactive

Before talking with your child, prepare yourself for questions they may ask, which will depend both on your child’s age and their individual sensitivities. A young child might wonder if their parents or friends could get hurt, while a teenager might want to protest or wonder if there will be a nuclear war. Recent life experiences also matter—a child already grieving the loss of a loved one may feel increased distress.

Breaking it down by age

Parents should feel confident initiating conversations about difficult topics, even if a child hasn’t already done so. Sometimes, parents assume that if their children aren’t talking about events like the war, that they don’t know about them, but that’s often a false assumption. When talking with children in elementary school or younger, start by asking what they’ve heard, for example: “I’m wondering if you’ve heard that a war started way across the world,” emphasizing that the conflict is far away, but using accurate terms, such as “war.” For older children and teens, consider asking what their friends are saying about the war and how they feel about it. This helps send the message that your family talks openly about life’s challenges.

Share information and tell children they are safe

Give kids basic, age-appropriate information about the war and talk together about safety. For preschool-age children, conversations should be concrete and low in detail. Say things like: “People in Ukraine are collecting food, finding shelter, and helping each other.”

For elementary school children, more detail is appropriate, for example: “People are leaving their homes to find safe places to stay during the war. They could be living in bomb shelters or moving to a different city or country until things in their home become safer.” 

Children often wonder how these events will affect them. Reassure your child that the war is happening in a different part of the world and that they are safe.

In middle school, kids start to differentiate from their parents and voice their own ideas. Further, it’s likely that teenagers are encountering distressing war-time images and videos on social media. Ask them what they’ve seen and how they feel about it. Is there something they’d like more information about? Consider watching or reading coverage of the war together with your teen. That may include a discussion about how to distinguish reliable sources of news from misinformation. This is a good opportunity for deeper conversations about global issues, safety in the media, and how to access reliable sources of information. Encourage your children to check in with you about any questions they may have or information that they come across online or through their peers. 

By high school, teens are old enough to understand the deadly consequences of war. They also become adept at perspective-taking, so they might want to discuss feelings around other kids their age fleeing their homes, taking up arms, or worrying about dying. Facilitating respectful discussions about different perspectives and the complexities of these issues provides a platform for your family to connect on a new level and understand how your teenager is thinking about the situation. 

Things to consider

Always think twice about giving blanket guarantees or reassurances. Children might want to hear things like, “everything will be fine” or “there’s nothing for you to worry about”, but it doesn’t ring true, so it’s not ultimately useful. Instead, you can say something like: “We’re making sure we keep in close contact to understand what’s going on. Our relatives are taking steps to stay safe.”

Monitor media exposure: Unlike media coverage of previous wars, we now have constant, immediate access to images and videos of violence through social media and 24-hour news. Turn the TV off or change the channel when young children are in the room to avoid exposing them to distressing footage. 

Focus on the helpers

Emphasizing how people are supporting Ukrainians can make kids feel safer. It reminds them that even when scary or bad things happen, there are always people that step forward to help. Show children how humanitarian workers, volunteers, and people from our government and other governments around the world are busy working on a solution to keep the people of Ukraine safe. Emphasize how the global community is coming together to help those in need, and consider times when your or your child’s own community (or classroom) has done the same. 

Above all, reassure

At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved. It’s crucial for parents to listen and make themselves available to talk, reiterate to children that they are safe, and urge compassion toward those affected by the war. Parents can also let kids know that it’s okay to feel sad, worried, or scared. Worry about the war is not all bad—it shows that a child has empathy, and as long as it’s channeled into action and not bottled up, worry can even be productive. Parents can explain this to their children, and encourage them to take action in order to affect change in ways that are age-appropriate.

Help kids be part of the solution

A lot of children want to help—and it’s important to provide means for them to do so in an age-appropriate way. Expressing their feelings through drawing, painting, or other artistic pursuits, raising money, and creating a student support group are some (of many) ways that children can turn their empathy into action.

For young children, that may simply involve drawing pictures or writing notes about peace. Elementary school kids can raise funds for reputable charities. Teenagers might participate in a peaceful demonstration of support for Ukraine. Families can also join together to attend a local Ukrainian vigil or send money to charitable organizations. To help provide food, water, supplies, and psychological support to the children of Ukraine, visit UNICEF or Voices of Children.

Try thinking about these macro-level problems into ‘what can I do?’ The healthiest thing that helps people cope is action. 

Take care of yourself

Talking about and experiencing difficult news and tragedies can be exhausting. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. You and your family can:

  • Turn off the news
  • Take a break
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Do something that will lift your spirits and those of your family

A brief recap . . .

Think about what you want to say:It’s okay (and even encouraged!) to practice these conversations in your head, to a mirror or with another adult. Some advanced planning may make the discussion easier. You won’t have to think about it off the top of your head.

Find a quiet moment: Perhaps this is after dinner or while making the next day’s lunch. This is time and place where your children can be the center of your attention.

Find out what they know: For example, there was a shooting at a school or a bomb set off in another country. Ask them “What have you heard about this?” and then listen. 

Share your feelings with your child. It is okay to acknowledge your feelings with your children. They see you are human. They also get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on. Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too.

Tell the truth. Lay out the facts at a level they can understand. You do not need to give graphic details.

For young children, you may need to have the conversation about what death means (no longer feel anything, not hungry, thirsty, scared, or hurting; we will never see them again, but can hold their memories in our hearts and heads).

Say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes the answer to the question is “I don’t know.” “Why did the bad people do this?” “I don’t know” fits.

Seek outside support

If your child needs additional help, reach out to other adults, such as school counselors, other parents or family members, or a professional therapist for support. Access resources that can help your child with self-regulation, such breathing and muscle relaxation exercises that you can practice together.

Finally, watch for signs that may indicate significant distress, such as sudden changes in sleeping or eating habits, irritability, or a preoccupation with violent media. In these cases, consider seeking support from your pediatrician or from one of our therapists by contacting us.

Recommended Reading:

What to Do When the News Scares You: A Kid’s Guide to Understanding Current Events by Jacqueline B=Toner

Something Bad Happened byDr. Dawn Huebner

A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma By Margaret Holmes  Margaret M. Holmes