Talking to children about war

When war hits your lives or the news, parents might need to explain war to their children.

Millions of Ukrainian children have been caught up in war. Their lives and health are at risk. There is very real potential for these children to develop mental health problems. But this conflict has also reminded people that there are other ongoing wars in other parts of the world. So many more children have been at risk for quite some time already.

Unfortunately, in any armed conflict children are victims of the actions of warring sides that either promise to protect, or obliterate, their adult relatives and their communities. They get exposed to, and very likely traumatized, by very violent events and in the worst-case scenario, they may get hurt or killed. In many instances, they would like to know why there is “a war”, how it started, and what war is.

And for those children living away from the armed conflict scenarios, distressing images and accounts are perpetually streamed on television news and social media streams are only a click away on their laptops and mobile phones. Add to this the misinformation and you have a dangerous mix of exposure. Very often, exposure to unfiltered disturbing material is enough to cause stress and anxiety. It is difficult for us all to comprehend, but particularly for younger minds – why people fight and can attack each other with such disregard and violence.

Children are both directly and indirectly affected. Many are scared and confused and don’t know what to expect. A lot of questions are being asked of parents, family, caregivers and support organisations. It’s natural to want to protect children from scary things, but parents need to be ready to talk with their children about war.

Responding to children’s fears and worries can be a daunting task. Here are some tips and resources that can help you speak to children about war.

How to talk to children about war?

Below I will outline some general tips which can be used with children in any country and setting. Then following those 10 tips I will provide some further information for caregivers and those working with children directly affected by war.

1. Make time to listen and start up a conversation with your child

Children need the time and space to talk when they want to. When they talk, try to stop and listen. Ask questions and encourage them to talk about how they feel and what they have seen, heard and know.

We should be factual and honest when children ask about war. Very often, brief answers, adequate to their age and level of understanding, are all they need as long as they feel their questions have been addressed. If your child needs more information (asks more/deeper questions) you may want to take some more time to prepare that conversation.

For example, while older children may need more details, younger ones may be happy to understand that sometimes countries fight. Be informed, keep calm and answer questions honestly. Begin with simple information – too much detail may overwhelm and cause anxiety.

2. Validate their feelings

Children will have different feelings regarding war. The more they know and understand about it the more informed their opinions would be. They may not be interested at all if it’s too far from them or does not know much about what is happening. This relies heavily on how and where they get their information from. Good/fair sources of information would allow them to have in turn a less biased and judgmental opinion. In this regard, it is important to find out where your child gets his/her information from, put some limits around it if necessary, and be a more trustworthy source of information for your child.

Also, the closer they are to warring grounds will have a definite impact on how they feel about their safety, that of their families, and of the communities they belong to. A higher sense of danger and anxiety may be exacerbated. Acknowledging and validating their feelings, and even expressing how we, the adults, also feel can help can create an environment where we all feel better understood and supported. Children, especially, may need help to adequately verbalize and process their feelings and emotions without feeling judged.

3. Be reassuring

Adults all around the world are working hard to fix this war problem, so they shouldn’t feel guilty about playing, living their lives as normal as possible, seeing their friends, or doing what makes them happy. If they know that kind-hearted adults are trying to stop the violence, then a higher sense of hope will be enhanced. Children may even want to find out more about who these kinds of adults are and what they are doing to improve the situation. For children living in war zones, especially, a higher sense of hope, and a reassuring approach from the adults around them, maybe very protective for their mental wellbeing.

4. Offer practical ways they can help

  • Create drawings that promote peace
  • Write to decision-makers
  • Start a fundraiser

When children have the opportunity to contribute and help they can feel less helpless and like they are part of a solution.


Social story for Ukrainian refugee children:

The following resources are available in both Ukrainian and English and can be downloaded here

  • in colour  ENGLISH  |  UKRAINIAN
  • in black and white to colour in  ENGLISH  |  UKRAINIAN
  • as a comic strip type story for social media ENGLISH  |  UKRAINIAN
  • in open art design files should you wish to adapt or translate further

The story is provided under creative commons and all are free to use.


Other resources:

IASC Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings

Free Ukrainian Translations Of Trauma And PTSD Psychoeducational Resources

How you can support your child during a bombing

Mental Health and psychosocial support in Ukrainian

Grounding techniques

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *