How and when to talk to children about war, according to a parenting expert

‘You should be the person your child comes to when the world is hard and difficult to interpret’

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Friday 25 February 2022 21:23 GMT
How and when to talk to children about war
How and when to talk to children about war (Getty Images)

As the world turns its attention towards the conflict with Russia in Ukraine, many parents are left wondering whether to broach the subject with their children, and if so, how to do so.

In times of uncertainty or fear, it can be especially daunting deciding whether a child should be exposed to a topic that is frightening.

However, there are times it is important to do so, according to Dr Deborah Gilboa, a  board-certified family physician, international parenting speaker, and parenting expert, who told The Independent that the first question often asked by parents is: “Should I talk to my children about this?”

According to Dr Gilboa, the answer isn’t always the same, as it depends on a number of factors, including the age of the child, the likelihood they will hear it from another source, and what your family’s relationship to the conflict is.

As a general rule, Dr Gilboa said she recommends, as backed by research, not broaching the topic with a child under the age of eight.

However, that may change when a parent asks themselves what the chances are that their child could learn about the topic from a different source, such as a friend or in school, as Dr Gilboa said that the information should always come from “you first”.

“Because when our kids hear about the things that are big or scary and don’t hear it from their parents first, the message they take away is ‘I shouldn’t talk to my parents about this,’” Dr Gilboa explained. “If for any reason you think your child is going to hear about this, then get to them and talk to them.”

If there isn’t a chance that your child will learn about the news from somewhere, or someone else, then it is fine to discuss the topic only with children older than eight, as long as the news doesn’t directly impact your family.

“If you think that’s not that case, you should only talk to your child, if under the age of eight, if it’s going to impact your family, if your family will really feel it,” Dr Gilboa said.

According to Dr Gilboa, with a conflict such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the impact may refer to most families in the UK, as she noted that children may have grandparents who lived through the blitz, and whose mood or mental health may be indirectly impacted by the conflict.

Once parents have determined whether they should be broaching the topic with their children, they can then address how to do so, with Dr Gilboa telling us that the first thing a parent should do, whether they are going to their child, or whether their child is coming to them, is “ask a question”.

A useful place to start is by asking whether your child has heard about the conflict, and if so, what they have heard.

“A non-judgemental ‘have you heard about this and what have you heard?’ helps you enter the conversation where they are,” Dr Gilboa explained, adding that the “pre-test” allows a parent to determine what their child is ready for, what they already know, and what conceptions they have made.

By entering the conversation with a question, it also allows parents to listen to their child’s emotional response, and correct any misconceptions with facts.

According to Dr Gilboa, before correcting any misinformation, parents should ask a child how they are feeling about the information they have learned, as “what you’re really trying to do is support them where they are”.

“This is you helping them process current events, which can be scary or overwhelming or disengaged from them,” she said.

While the opening may seem like a good starting point to talk about global politics or other world events, the amount of information a parent should actually convey to their child is limited, as Dr Gilbota notes that, in “each conversation you get one fact and one value that you get to impart” on your child.

“In your child’s life right now, when they think about this conflict, what is the emotional message you want them to remember along with the facts?” Dr Gilboa said. “This is really where you get to use your expertise as this child’s parent.”

According to Dr Gilboa, these messages may be something like: “Our family is safe,” “oppression is wrong,” or “war is bad”. If the child is older, it may mean they are “ready for a more nuanced convo about conflict, such as where is the gain?” which can help them grow into critical thinkers.

Ultimately, Dr Gilboa reiterated that there are two reasons to have a conversation about war or conflict with your child, to protect their mental health by allowing them to take in the news while still expressing their feelings, and to ensure that you are the person that your child comes to “when the world is hard and difficult to interpret”.

Even if a child appears to be handling the news well, it is important to check back in, as anxieties about what they have learned may manifest after the conversation.

Dr Gilboa said a “parenting hack” that she recommends in these instances is telling your child that you plan to check back in with them in a day or two, and then setting an alarm on your phone so that you remember to do so.

In addition to showing your child that their mental health is important to you, it also means you have kept your word, which builds trust.

In the age of social media, parents should also be aware that their children may be exposed to information about the topic on platforms such as Twitter, TikTok or Instagram. While social media can be a useful source of news, it can also be flooded with misinformation.

If your child comes to you with a piece of information that you don’t believe is accurate, rather than immediately dismissing the news, Dr Gilboa recommends asking what their source is, and then cross-referencing the information with more credible news outlets to see whether it is accurate.

“Because now what you’re doing is teaching kids to be critical information gatherers,” she explained, adding that it can be a teachable moment to show a child trustworthy ways of gathering information and news.This is also important to keep in mind when considering how you receive your own news, as children are typically paying more attention than you realise.

While it is important that parents broach difficult topics such as war with their children, Dr Gilboa made a point to remind parents that this cannot be successfully done until they have processed their own feelings about the news.

“If this is something affecting you really strongly, have your own support system to lean on,” she advised. “To go to your kids about something that makes you emotional, make sure you get to process your feelings apart from the children. It has to be them leaning on you, not you leaning on them.”

She also noted that it is “different to be in solidarity,” such as by agreeing that something is scary, than it is to “lean on your kids for emotional support,” and that when it comes to talking about any scary thing, it is important to first “process your own feelings and then figure out if you should talk to your child about it”.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in