By Atle Dyregrov, Magne Raundalen and William Yule (clinical psychologists)
War has started in Ukraine. Adults and children watch the conflict unfold and parents and teachers worry what to tell the children. Over many decades, we have come up with advice when war is raging or threatening. Here, we have collected some information and advice for parents and other adults to enable them to support their children.
How do children react?
Children learn of dramatic and terrible events through the Internet, news broadcasts and from overhearing adults’ discussions. From previous wars in the Gulf, Kosovo, Gaza, Afghanistan, and Syria, we know that some children experience strong fears that the war will also hit where they live. Children lack experience to understand the news, to assess distance across the world and so to assess the risk of war reaching where they live. Fantasies and misconceptions can cause strong fears. Children feel uncertain they understand that adults are concerned about what is being reported. Parents discuss with each other and with other adults, often with different opinions, but their discussions are often over the heads of children. As most parents know, children have an unerring habit of overhearing what the parents are trying to protect them from.
The range of children’s reactions is large. From previous conflicts, we know that the following reactions may appear:
- Fear, concern and worry
- Seen in increased need to be close to their loved ones
- Want the lights on at night, and the door open when they go to bed
- Increased need for physical contact, reacts to separation
- Disturbed sleep – difficulty getting to sleep, nightmares
- Thinking about the conflict
- Asks questions or express thoughts
- Keenly follow the news
- Show that they are concerned about what is happening by introducing elements of the situation into their play
- Sadness, more irritability
Some children are or may appear completely unconcerned about the situation and have no need for additional adult intervention. If the child is much like they did before, it is important not to “force” them to have to deal with questions about the war situation. But adults must have their “antennae” up as children may push difficult thoughts away, and then fear and uncertainty come creeping in. Adults are responsible for meeting their concerns.bekymringer.
Don’t underestimate what your kids take in
We know that children from the age of 5-6 years old, and sometimes younger, may watch quite a lot of radio and television news where serious words and large types are used. They are very sensitive to adult unrest. Dramatic images can be specially upsetting. Often we underestimate what children can understand, because they ask us questions that reflect how little they know. Conversation with children must be adapted to their age and developmental stage. It is important to understand that without facts and knowledge, their understanding is limited. Left to themselves or conversations with peers, misunderstandings, rumors, fears and fantasies can often prevail.
When you are concerned that your child may not have understood what you were trying to get across, ask them to tell it back to you. They will process the information at the level they can understand, and you will quickly see what, if anything they have misunderstood. You will then have to explain it in simpler terms.
Give your children precise information
It is the task of adults in simple words to explain where the war takes place; use the map to display on the map where Ukraine is located. Explain how long it takes to travel there and relate this to distances they themselves have experience with. Also explain to them why many people are so worried.
In the following we give an example of how this can be explained to children 5 to 8 years old; «In the great and powerful country of Russia, a man by the name of Putin is president. Russia is much larger and has more weapons and soldiers than Ukraine which is the neighboring country. Putin believes that Russia and Ukraine are one people and believes that Ukraine cannot make decisions by itself. On the Border between Russia and Ukraine, Putin had gathered many weapons and soldiers and now they have begun war against Ukraine. Both in Ukraine and other countries in the world, we have been afraid that Russia would do what it is now doing, start war against Ukraine. A lot of countries object to this and in the news this is talked about a lot. Adults are worried about what is happening, but we are not afraid that Russia will attack other neighboring countries. Most people in other countries have hoped that there would be no war, but a few days ago Putin sent in his troops to force Ukraine to do what he wants. This meant that many countries begun punishing Russia with what they call sanctions. Sanctions means that important people in Russia cannot use their money outside of Russia, and that trade with Russia has been limited. They punish Russia by making many things difficult for Russia, so that Putin and Russia will understand that what they are doing, is wrong. There will be more sanctions to come. There will be a lot about Ukraine in the news in the days that come».
This is only a suggestion for words to use, but there are of course other ways to express this. This is a first framework or suggestion that parents and other adults can use to find their own words. Parents know their children best and can come up with their own words that suit their child. Remember to ask children what they think and hear out their opinions.
Give your children assurances that they are safe
Children become afraid that there will be war where they live and that something can happen to those they love. It is important for them to find out if there can be a war where they live. Basically, it is important to say that this war is happening far away (if that is correct for where you live). There’s no reason to think there’s going to be a war where this is written (in Norway). What is happening is terrible for those who live in Ukraine, but we are not in danger. Mom and Dad are safe and so are they themselves. Again, we recommend that you open a conversation with the children and hear what thoughts they have and let that be the start of the conversation. Here as elsewhere, it is important to listen, take turns, sometimes be leading and sometimes follow. The important thing is to be in contact with the thoughts and interpretation that children make of what is happening, a reality that cannot be shut out in the modern media society.
If we as adults are worried, as many are, we should acknowledge this and say that we are concerned for everyone who lives in Ukraine. We sincerely hope that there won’t be many people who get killed. Many countries will help as best they can without joining the war, and many will be punishing Russia and Putin through sanctions.
For older children aged 9 years and above, parents can explain a little more about the background to the conflict, a little about the history of the Soviet Union and that Russia is afraid that other countries will have great influence close to their borders. This is more difficult because then you have to go into politics. The point is that the older children should understand more and at the same time avoid being seduced by simple explanations or be left with undigested explanations that are untouched by conversations with adults.
You can explain that this is what is called international politics, that is, politics that have to do with several nations.
Keep track of what children take in through the media
The conflict will have a large place in the news media. It is important that parents reflect around on what children get to see, when they see, how often they see and who is present when they see. There is every reason for parents to remember where the off button is so that children are not unnecessarily exposed to information about the war, and strong human reactions of fear and sorrow, etc. Parents can limit their child’s exposure by only watching late news broadcasts when the children have gone to bed. They can watch news with their children and if the children are concerned by what is happening, they can also actively do other things with the children when they notice that this makes them more fearful about the situation. Also ask the children what they have seen or read when you were not present, so that this can be discussed.
Other advice on handling
Increased insecurity in children may require more proximity to parents. Accept that your child may need more assurances from you that you will be there for them in such an uncertain period of time. They will need a safe lap to crawl up on, they can come at night because they have woken up, or they will want the light on and the door open when they go to bed. Have a permissible attitude to this. Be accommodating and understand that they seek the security that you can give them by accepting this for a period of time. Participating in children’s activities and doing activities together with children can help them feel safe.
For school-age children, check with them what has been said or discussed in school, so that you can touch on any concerns they may have afterwards. The same goes for things they get from the news. Let them decide for themselves the pace of any conversation, but do not dismiss them by saying that “you are too young to understand” or “don’t think about it.” If you’re not sure what to say, tell them that you will think about it a little bit and then answer them or explain to them later. Follow up on what you promise. If your child asks very advanced questions, you can confer with someone you know who you know has a lot of knowledge about children.
Children, like adults, may feel helpless about what is happening. They need to maintain their optimism for the future. War in Ukraine means that the children there will suffer. Through UNICEF and other aid organizations, many will want to help both children and adults affected by the war. Let the children know that they can help themselves. Build up the children’s empathy for others and the hope that the war is over quickly.