How to ease your child’s anxiety about war in Russia-Ukraine

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings new images of war to the nightly news and TikTok feeds, many parents are wondering: How do I explain the evolving situation to my kids?

Concerns about strife in a country far from home are adding worries to a generation already on edge from navigating changes in everyday life due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For children in military families, stress may be amplified, as questions over U.S. involvement in the conflict down the road raise questions of whether a deployment is around the corner for mom or dad. And, for the estimated 1 million Ukrainians who now call the U.S. home, including many Ukrainian-born Tennessee families, the situation is deeply personal.

“You’ve got to keep in mind, our kids have been through a lot,” said Nicole Cobb, associate professor of the practice of human and organizational development. “When I think about one of the best ways to help children cope, it’s being in a grounded place as an adult. Kids pick up on the moods and feelings of the adults around them.”

Cobb has worked in education for 25 years as a teacher, school counselor and administrator at the district and state level. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, many colleagues and personal connections discussed their children’s unease with the unfolding story abroad.

Explaining the situation to students is also a current issue for educators to consider, although many schools are still figuring out how to accommodate an array of COVID-19-related learning disruptions, leaving some classrooms short on time to creatively figure out a way to tie world news into daily plans, Cobb noted.

Integrating the topic into a family conversation at some point could be helpful, as well as finding other ways to alleviate stress if children are feeling anxious.

Here are a few other tips to consider as the conflict continues:

Limit your news consumption in front of the kids

Yes, it’s tempting to stay glued to the 24-hour news cycle, especially as new developments emerge on the battlefront and in the political arena as world leaders continue with sanctions against Russia. But, Cobb said, there’s no reason your kids need to view every breaking news alert. If you need to stay connected to updates, try to sneak a peek on your phone before flipping on the cable news again.

Get outside and move

Spring is in the air and there’s no better time to go for a walk in the sunshine to help shift a mood, Cobb said. If Nashville’s unpredictable weather brings rain, find another way to get kids moving. “For stress, it can be helpful to ask yourself, are you getting outside with your kids and getting away from all the technology or taking a break to play a game? Everyone has been cooped up inside and we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, so there’s a kind of mounting anxiety. Getting out can help,” she said.

Emphasize what we can control

It can be hard to answer questions from kids when there is so much uncertainty. “Will Russia bomb us next?” “Is this the start of World War III?” “What is going to happen to the kids hiding in the shelters?” are a few of the hard questions cast at parents from young and perceptive minds. While it can be alluring as a parent to say, “It’s all going to be OK,” focusing on the present moment may be the most honest approach with kids, Cobb said. “We can say, ‘Today we are safe. We are grateful for what we have. We’re going to go do something fun this weekend. We get to take a walk.”

Engage older children who may be ready for more mature conversations about world events

Children in middle school and high schoolers may be more ready to delve into the history of the conflict and to discuss factors that led up to it. Finding reliable news sources that will present information that is unbiased and without a political bent is valuable to keeping the conversation informative. Academic sources can also be valuable learning tools. Kathryn David, Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Vanderbilt, recently authored an article for The Conversation’s Curious Kids series that presents the complicated dynamics in plain language. Her article, “Why did Russia invade Ukraine?” is an easy-to-understand primer for kids of all ages.

Educators and parents may also turn to online toolkits on how to engage with kids during a crisis, Cobb said. For example, the San Diego Office of Education posted a conversation guide soon after the war broke out, providing teachers and parents with suggestions on how to help kids cope with the emotional side of the conflict as well as ideas for turning current events into learning opportunities. Other school districts around the country are following suit.

Find a community to share suggestions

While the current war in Russia-Ukraine may be the first time newer parents have had to broach the conversation of war with children, many veteran parents have been down this road before.

Natural disasters, 9/11 and other large-scale crises have left prior generations equally speechless during moments when kids turned to the adults in their lives with questions that have no clear answers.

Vanderbilt University over the years has organized several events for parents on how to have difficult conversations with kids on a number of topics, including understanding the COVID-19 pandemic. Other topics presented at the parenting sessions through the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center lunchtime series have included issues such as “raising anti-racist kids” and “walking away from helicoptering.” The group’s March 17 lecture will focus on “kids and irritability.” The events are open to the VU community.

Recognize when it’s all become too much

While it may be hard for some people to realize, the invasion of Ukraine is an example of compound trauma for many. In Tennessee, a pandemic, devastating tornadoes and floods, and economic hardships have plagued families for months.

“We have a lot of families who lost jobs and went through a lot of financial strain during the pandemic. Gas prices shot up over the weekend. Grocery bills are higher because of inflation. Families are still under a lot of financial strain,” Cobb said. “Kids are feeding off this multitude of stuff that just keeps coming, coming, coming, without a break.”

The Vanderbilt community offers well-being resources for families who may need assistance in navigating challenging circumstances with counseling and other help.

Validating concerns to children who may be worried about Russia-Ukraine is a helpful way to show you are listening and compassionate. While it can be easy to dismiss a concern as silly, addressing a child’s worry is a cue for parents to sit down and pause and to talk to a child about what they are feeling.

“Do not minimize what your child is feeling, even if you think they are being overdramatic … that will do harm. We want to give them a moment, ask them to put those feelings into words if they can, and then move into ‘these are the things we can control,’ let’s focus here today,” Cobb said.

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