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How to Talk to Children About War

Updated: Mar 7

Young children don't always talk about what's worrying them, and while they may be trying to make sense of what's happening in Ukraine, we don't want them to do this alone. The best approach is to combine being as factual as possible within an environment that is nurturing and playful.

1) Don't show children your insecurity.

If you're feeling fearful or anxious, it will be difficult for you to convey reassurance and safety to the child. Choose the time to address your child's questions when you feel most in control and calm.

2) Do not confront children directly about their feelings.

If children have started talking about the war, encourage them to tell you what they have heard. As soon as you try to confront a child directly about difficult experiences, the risk is that they will shut down and will consequently feel more isolated in their feelings, so take your lead from them. By confronting children directly we risk shaming and embarrassing them because they don’t yet have the cognitive functioning to fully express their feelings verbally.

3) Build connection through play.

A child's natural language is play so to help children understand their world we need to engage with them through playful and creative activities. This will help them to relax and open up. Answer their questions about the war while they are playing as this is less likely to stress them.

4) Connect through therapeutic storytelling.

Connecting through play is best done through storytelling. Stories give frightened or withdrawn children the tools to discover their voice. They find themselves in the characters of the story which helps them to make sense of the events happening around them, and to them. Sit alongside them through the reading and then use the story as a conversational prompt afterwards.

5) Hear the child.

Show that you’ve heard them by reflecting back what they’ve said. This reassures them that they are not alone and their anxiety will immediately drop.

6) Reassure them.

Young children often personalise situations and may perceive the danger to be closer to home. Let them know that although war is very serious, they do not need to worry about it happening in their neighbourhood. Tell them you understand how they are feeling and reassure them that they are safe and that you are there to take care of them. It is important, however, to be realistic and not to promise that no one will get hurt.

7) Create a safe and secure environment.

Children thrive when they feel safe and secure. Limit children's exposure to the media and especially news reports about the war. Discuss your own concerns outside of your children's earshot.

8) Let them draw.

Drawing allows children to process their worries, express their imagination and envision a new story. Keep crayons and paper to hand especially by the bedside if your child has disrupted sleep or, nightmares.

Amanda Seyderhelm is a play and creative arts therapist and author of the books, Isaac and the Red Jumper and Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change, a guide for professionals and parents published by Routledge Education. She lives in Derbyshire.

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