This morning, I turned on the radio as I drove my daughter to preschool. A young Ukrainian man spoke candidly about his fear. He was a peaceful person, he didn’t even like violence in movies, he explained, but he was prepared to take up arms to defend his country. I found myself tearing up behind the wheel. I was thinking about all the parents and kids (and non-parents, adults, and older folks) whose entire lives are being turned upside down in Ukraine, suddenly and profoundly.
My daughter is not yet 2 years old, so we’re some time away from talking about topics like invasion, loss, and war. Yet she’s incredibly observant—I know she can pick up on my anxiety and sadness. And I know it’s not long before her string of “whys” touch on the uncomfortable and even painful.
Even when I talk with adults, I find myself at a loss for words. The horror and fear are overwhelming; and sending support or love, however genuine, doesn’t feel nearly enough. Likewise, we’re not going to have the perfect explanations or words when we broach these tough subjects with our children, and that’s absolutely ok. Think of yourself as a curious, compassionate guide as you embark on a journey of understanding and compassion together as a family.
I’ve been reading up on how best to approach these conversations, and many of these ideas are from family psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy of Good Inside. They seem to me a solid starting point for talking about anything hard and big, and right now what is unfolding in Ukraine is hard and big indeed.
Honesty builds trust, and if kids are asking hard questions, they deserve genuine answers. That doesn’t mean they need an in-depth history lesson (if they’re interested, go for it!) or CNN-style coverage (you probably don’t want to have the news on all the time). Your involvement and explanation should and will depend on their age, and you don’t have to explain every little thing.
And yet, “If you do feel like they may hear mention of it at school, or they playground, or elsewhere, it may be worth having a short, truthful, simple conversation so they are hearing it from you (their trusted parent) first,” writes Dr. Kennedy. She suggests starting with something like: “Hey sweetie, I want to tell you something that’s going on very farrr away from us. There is a place called Ukraine and another place called Russia. Russia is trying to take Ukraine’s land from them. You might hear people talking about it at school or on the TV. I want you to know that you are safe and I’m here to answer any questions you might have.”
This is heavy, big stuff. Check in with your own feelings, and give your little ones permission to walk through theirs. You can ask them what it’s like to think and talk about such a hard topic. Dr. Kennedy recommends saying something like, “We can keep talking about this. In fact, it’s important we do because you may have questions or feelings come up. I’m here for all of them. You can ask me anything.” This lets you keep the door open and gives you an opportunity to connect with your kid.
It’s ok if discomfort, sadness, or rage emerges. Our goal as parents isn’t to squish these unpleasant feelings—after all, they’re part of being human. Instead, our goal is to help our children navigate them with honesty and integrity. Like most things, we can lead by example. We can be vulnerable and strong at the same time.
For kids and adults, experiencing and processing major events, in the world and our own lives, takes time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be shy about admitting it. It’s an opportunity to learn together.
If your kid wants to do something—and if you do, too—you might start a project to raise money for charities supporting Ukraine or write letters. Also remind them that it’s still ok to be a kid! You can model this by taking care of yourself and making time for fun.
All kids are different, so there’s no simple one size fits all approach. Help them feel safe, secure, heard, and loved. That’s a very solid start.