Families across the world have been troubled by the news and images from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When our children turn to us to help them understand scary news, we might feel afraid of saying too much—or not enough—and so avoid a conversation that could be a powerful way to help children learn about themselves and the world.
Abigail Gewirtz is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University whose research explores interventions to strengthen families affected by traumatic events, like a parent being deployed to war or a family being forced to migrate from their home country due to civic strife and violence. She is a clinical child psychologist by training, and has spent the last 20 years working on helping parents be their kids’ best teachers, especially in times of trouble, to help promote children’s resilience. She is the author of the recent book When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents & Worried Kids.
We interviewed Gewirtz about how parents can navigate difficult conversations with their children about war and scary news.
Maryam Abdullah: As parents, we can feel really overwhelmed by the news of children and families suffering around the world. What can parents do first to prepare themselves before talking to their children about stressful news?
Abigail Gewirtz: Even though we love to think that we know what our children are exposed to, by the time they enter primary school, we really don’t. We know that kids get mobile phones earlier and earlier. You can be pretty sure that—whether it’s on their phone or their friend’s—your child is seeing images of war, including images that you do not want them to see.
Today we’re talking about Ukraine—images of people fleeing their homes, of bombs falling on hospitals, of horrific things happening. And what we are seeing is happening against the backdrop of two years of a devastating pandemic that has killed millions around the world. People, to say the least, are feeling it. We tend to think of ourselves as operating from a certain emotional baseline, and if that’s the case, the baseline of the last couple of years has been a tougher one.
It seems like there’s no let-up. As parents, simply recognizing that is a really powerful and important first step because it’s not until you recognize what your stress level is—how you are feeling—that you are really able to help anybody else.
I really encourage parents to think about and identify what they’re feeling, and where they’re feeling it (in their bodies). Then consider how you can help yourself feel better. How do you calm down best? What’s the thing that you need to take for yourself, for your partner, with your partner’s or friend’s help when you are really feeling stressed? Do that first. Put your own life jacket on before assisting others.
MA: Parents can feel at a loss for words when kids ask them hard questions, like “What’s going to happen to those kids and families?” or “Will that happen to me?” What guidance can you give parents about trying to balance the tension between wanting to be honest about what’s happening and wanting to protect both their younger and older children from suffering in the world?
AG: You hit the nail on the head in terms of the tricky tension between being honest but also sparing your children from gory, awful, scary, horrifying details.
The first step is to deal with our own emotions around the topic before we have the conversation with our child. Your seven-year-old child might say, “My friend showed me pictures of children with torn clothes, running away, and said their homes had been destroyed. Is that going to happen to us?” You might, for a moment, be overcome by your own emotions around how horrifying it is and, driven by your feelings, say something you later regret, like “Yes, so terrible, this could lead us to another world war if we’re not careful. Who knows what will happen? I’m so scared.” That kind of a response can be very scary to a young child because it conveys to him that his mom feels helpless, terrified, and overwhelmed. So consider keeping those thoughts to yourself. Put them to one side and think about what you want to share with your children. Be intentional, rather than emotionally driven.
With a young child, it’s really important to help them understand where this war is happening—that it’s not at home, not in the United States—as well as to explain what’s happening in simple terms that don’t give kids more information than they can understand or than you want them to have.
Of course, every parent is driven by their own values and has to decide what they want to share. With a seven year old, for example, you might say, “Yes, there is a war happening. War is a bad thing because some people have to run away from their homes to stay safe. Some of those kids do look like you—they could be the same age as you—and that must feel very scary. That war is happening a long, long way from us. Here, grown-ups—people like me, your dad, your mom, your teacher, all of us—are doing everything we can to keep you safe. That’s our job. It’s the job of grown-ups to keep kids safe. It’s the job of leaders in the country to try to keep their people safe.”
That is a good segue to talk about the heroism of President Zelensky, for example. It’s really important when you’re talking about war with older kids to highlight heroism in war among leaders and everyday people alike. For example,“They’re leaving with their mommy. Their daddy is staying behind to protect his country, his home, and his family.”
But I really want to highlight that this conversation should happen only after you’ve had an opportunity to hear what your child thinks, knows, has heard, is worried about, where he feels it in his body, so that you have had a chance to validate how your child feels.
MA: What about kids who have extended families in war or who are refugees themselves? How can parents who have children with these kinds of family experiences speak to their children about what’s happening?
AG: You mentioned two specific circumstances. One in which parents are talking to their child about the conflict in Ukraine and they themselves have had an experience of fleeing to the United States. The other situation is one in which a family might have relatives in Ukraine.
Those situations are similar in the sense that the closer we are to the experience of war and conflict, the harder it is for us as grown-ups to be able to process our own emotions. If you’re a parent who fled from a conflict zone—from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, for example—you are going to feel a heightened sense of stress when you see this happen to others.
We call these experiences traumatic reminders. A trauma reminder is something that—whether it’s a smell, a sight, a sound, a taste—reminds you of the terrible thing that happened to you. What we know about those reminders is they put us on edge more—they make us more likely to react and to be overcome by our emotions. That’s why it’s all the more important to have an outlet for yourself to make sure that you are being looked after, that you have an opportunity to be able to take time to let those emotions lower before you respond to your child.
Take the child (and parent) with family in Ukraine. Your child knows that you’re on the phone all the time trying to find out about your family’s whereabouts and whether they’re safe. Our children are detectives of the highest level, and your child’s going to pick up on your worry. This is where honesty is really important—there’s no point denying that. You might say, “Yes, mom and dad are worried because we have family who we love and we want them to be safe. We’re doing everything we can to help them, and here are some of the things that are happening.”
The really important thing for parents to understand is that, just like us, children need to feel that there is something they can do. All of us feel more awful if we feel totally helpless—and our children are no exception. So, after you have that conversation where your child asks you questions and you answer them carefully—and you’re careful to put your own concerns to one side and really be responsive to them—that’s the opportunity to say, “I know we all feel a bit overwhelmed about what’s happening, especially when we watch the TV, but I wonder if there’s something that we can do for ourselves. It can be something to help us all calm down together, and it could also be something to help people, whether it’s for people who come here or are struggling to get to the border.” It’s important to remember—and to remind our children—that there is always something we can do, however small, to help the situation.
@greatergoodscience When the World Feels Like a Scary Place | Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D. #anxiouskids #talkingtokids #gentleparentingtips #fyp ♬ Epic Emotional - AShamaluevMusic
MA: For older tweens or teens who have access to social media, if it does come up, how do you talk about the threat of nuclear war?
AG: You start by talking about social media. In times of war and threat, social media can be an incredibly valuable tool for people who don’t have access to regular news, like those in Ukraine, to be able to communicate with others. However, as we all know, social media can be a very dangerous source of misinformation, and our kids are vulnerable to that misinformation because they don’t know what’s fact and what’s fiction…and sometimes we don’t either. It’s really important for parents of kids of all ages to help children understand that there is fact and there is hearsay—and for them always to come to you to check the facts.
In my book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place, I talk about not telling children “That’s not true”—because kids are unlikely to believe it from their parents, at least kids of a certain age. Instead, help kids discover for themselves what is factual and what isn’t, preferably together, as a family activity: “Let’s figure out is this real or not.”
I do not recommend discussing nuclear war with young children because it’s extremely difficult to understand. It’s different with older kids. A 16 year old, for example, has learned the history of nuclear threats. I think it’s OK, then, to turn to history and just say, “Dangerous things happen when one country invades another, but, fortunately, we have many, many people who have been trained in strategic communication and understanding how to negotiate in war situations. The likelihood of nuclear war is extremely, extremely small. There is not a single person who wants nuclear war because it is so horrifying and the reality is that what you see is people doing everything they can to avoid this.”
MA: What types of signs should parents be on the lookout for that might indicate that their children are becoming increasingly anxious about scary news? And what can parents do to help their children if they notice these signs?
AG: Sadly, what we know is that over the last couple of years since the beginning of the pandemic, but even before that, anxiety and depression are on the increase in children. The pandemic has been particularly hard on families. It is really important for parents to be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and depression in kids.
What are the things to look for? Your child’s not sleeping, they’re coming into your room at night, or they’re on their phone all night. They seem increasingly preoccupied. They talk a lot about existential issues like nuclear war, whether life is worth living; they seem to be more focused on negative thoughts or stuck in their heads to the extent that they’re not doing the things they should be doing, like homework, sports, or going out with friends.
If you see that your child is getting more and more worried, don’t shut the conversation off. Be a listening ear. Some parents really worry that when they allow their children to talk, their children get more and more upset and spiral. For those kids, it’s really important to help them calm themselves down by validating them, and then offering them a break: “Why don’t you just read your favorite book/watch TV for a bit/take a breath of air/walk the dog/have a snack, and then let’s come back to this and talk about it when we’re both feeling a little bit calmer. Say in a half hour?”
When kids cry a lot more than they used to, that could be of concern. Certainly, when symptoms go on for a month or more, that’s a time to talk to a mental health professional. If your child ever reports feeling like they want to harm themselves, or they wish they weren’t living, that’s an urgent call for mental health help.
MA: What is one of the most important tips you would want parents to remember about communicating with their kids when the world feels like a scary place, that we haven’t yet covered in our conversation?
AG: I would say just communicate with your kids when the world doesn’t feel like a scary place—about boring, old, day-to-day stuff. Take 10 minutes to have a conversation with your child every day about anything and nothing. It doesn’t have to be an intense one-on-one face-to-face conversation. It can be while you’re walking a dog, while you’re in the car, around the dinner table is a great place to do it. Just get into the habit of having conversations.
I have four kids. I remember those days where it was all we could do to get everybody out of the house for school, clothed, and having had breakfast! What’s easy to forget about in the haze of child rearing are the conversations that go beyond, “Hurry up! We’re late. Get your shoes on!” If we can take some time—just 10 minutes a day before bedtime, at dinner, on the way home from school—to be able to have those conversations, then it’s going to be a lot easier to talk about things when the world feels like a scary place.