by Larry Magid
A shorter version of this post appeared in the Mercury News
Whether it’s via TV, radio, or the internet, kids and teens, just like adults, are learning about what’s happening in and around Ukraine, and many are likely concerned, worried or even scared.
For those in the United States, Ukraine is thousands of miles away – separated by an ocean and, while that could be reassuring for some, it doesn’t change the fact that what happens in one part of the world affects people around the globe. If nothing else, the news from Ukraine is making people here sad, and sometimes angry. It’s also making many children and adults anxious and — in some cases — frightened.
Talking and listening
Listen to “How to speak with your kids about war in Ukraine”
We speak with psychiatrist Dr. Annie Hempstead on our 1-minute ConnectSafely Report for CBS News Radio.
How parents and other adults respond can have a big impact on how a young person handles the news coming out of Ukraine. We can’t hide the fact that something bad is happening, nor should we deny that we are sad, worried or frightened. But we can also be reassuring and help put the crisis into perspective, helping children feel safer but also enabling them to express their feelings about what is happening and, possibly, take some action that might — even in some small way — make them feel more empowered to do something to make a difference.
Retired child and adolescent psychiatrist and current developmental life coach Annie Hempstead, MD, who is on the board of ConnectSafely, advises parents to start by listening, asking open ended questions, and then continuing to listen. “There are times when our anxiety is high enough that we just want to fix it. We just want to make it OK and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that desire. But sometimes we skip a step.” That step, she said, is asking your kids how they are feeling, what they are hearing and thinking about, and listening carefully to what they say. It’s a good idea to invite children to talk about their concerns, but be aware that some kids will want to think and talk about other and maybe happier parts of their lives. Allow them to choose what they’d like to share.
Dr. Hempstead says that kids “need their own platform, and time to talk about what may be bothering them.” If they bring up concerns about the war, you can start by asking them what they know and how they are feeling, and then truly listen to their response. You might also ask if they would like you to help them understand these events. She also said that it’s important to be “real and “part of that realness is listening to how scared they might be.” Depending on their level of development, you might want to share your own feelings, “I might be scared at times, as a parent.” She added, “authenticity is a really big part of this.” You can model for them that it’s natural to have feelings, even parents do, and we are OK, even if we are anxious. It’s also important to remind kids that “good things happen much more often than bad things and most people are good.”
Hempstead said that parents should seek out professional help “if you see your kid withdrawing, If you see your kid not taking enjoyment in their usual activities, if you see appetite changes or that they are unable to enjoy themselves.”
Media consumption and possible misinformation
It’s also important to ask kids what they know, what they are seeing and where they are getting their news. If they’re accessing information online, talk about the source and — together — try to determine whether these are credible sources. Talk with them about what they are seeing on social media and how they can tell if something they see may not be completely true. ConnectSafey’s Quick-Guide to Misinformation & Media Literacy (connectsafely.org/misinfo) can help with that conversation.
Also, be wary of what you see on TV. Credible network news organizations strive to give accurate information, but sometimes they speculate or report breaking news that hasn’t been verified. And there is a difference between the reporters who are reporting the facts and the analysts and guests who may be speculating or simply sharing their opinions.
Kerry Gallagher, a veteran educator who currently serves as assistant principal for teaching and learning at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., and as ConnectSafely’s education director, said that parents of older adolescents should “share information they have checked through lateral reading (which involves consulting several trusted information sources to understand a topic or news event) or other fact checking techniques and comment on information that is inaccurate to redirect the teens to information that is accurate.”
Teens, said Gallagher, “are often getting their news and facts from places like Instagram and TikTok. Some of their sources on those platforms are accurate (many are not), but they should use lateral reading to corroborate.”
Adolescents, she added, “have a very clear sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. Many of my students are upset that what is happening to the Ukrainian civilians rises to the level of ‘war crimes’ and therefore someone powerful enough to step in (like the US government or European Union) should do something to stop those crimes from happening. Helping them process this is important.”
Gallagher and I are co-authors of Parent’s & Educator’s Guide to Media Literacy and False Information.
Disturbing images and videos
Parents need to be aware that some of the images on TV and online can be very disturbing. This is a war, which means there will be explosions, fires, burnt-out buildings and pictures of people who may be wounded, dead or in desperate conditions. While such images can help build awareness and empathy, they are not suitable for all viewers, especially children.
Online news sources and images shared on social media, sometimes by the combatants themselves, can be even more explicit than TV news so talk with your kids about what they are seeing and how they are responding to stories, images and videos.
Even for teens and adults, it’s probably best to limit your consumption of TV news about the war. It may be appropriate to tune in now and then, but a steady diet of bad news can lead to depression and increased anxiety.
You might also want to talk with your teens about what they share online. In addition to making sure they don’t share false information, they should be aware that not everyone may want to view graphic or violent images. They should also be careful before sharing sensitive information such as images of prisoners of war or innocent civilians and be especially careful before sharing any information that could give away a person’s location. Just because someone posted something online doesn’t mean that you or your kids should be sharing it.
“We are all trying to navigate the information that is coming at us quickly,” said Gallagher. “The situation changes rapidly hour to hour. It is OK to step away for a while and then check in when you are rested and ready, both cognitively and emotionally.”
Dr. Hempstead pointed out that it’s appropriate to “limit how much children are visually taking in and they’re audibly taking it as well. In particular, seeing images of war, injury and death, can be a very powerful source of trauma for children.” She recommends being sure TV news channels are turned off when children are within eye or ear range.
What you and your children can do to help in Ukraine
It’s easy to feel helpless during a crisis because there is little if anything you can do directly to stop the Russian attacks against Ukraine. But there are things you can do that not only benefit Ukrainians and others directly affected, but also help give you and your children a sense of empowerment.
“There is no question that kids of any age will feel better once they start to take action to promote goodness in the world,” said Hempstead. “Our brains are wired for that. It’s one of the most healing things we can do. It can be as simple as being kind to people.”
Talk with your kids about what they and you can do whether it’s making cards to send to Ukrainian children, raising money online or by having a bake sale, lemonade stand or car wash. Teens can raise funds and awareness on social media and families can attend or even help organize vigils and demonstrations to show their support for the people of Ukraine. People of faith may find it comforting to pray or attend services in honor of those directly affected by the war. Sharing your feelings with others can be therapeutic. ConnectSafely youth advisor Trisha Prabhu has more advice on Supporting Ukraine, Offline and Online.
Helping your kids feel they’ll be OK
Dr. Hempstead said “the most important factor for children who’ve been traumatized and possibly being re-traumatized, or experiencing trauma for the first time, is knowing that their parents and/or guardians are OK and that they will be OK.”
“Honoring that what they’re feeling is valid, and they have a right to feel that,” added Hemstead. But the next step is helping them understand that “we’re living in a country where we’re so lucky to be so safe, we’re so lucky to have so many walls of protection” and that, of course, your parents and caretakers are there to take care of you.
For some children, it may be helpful to point out that Ukraine is far away. You might even want to show them a map or a globe with an ocean between the US and Ukraine. None of this is to diminish the nature of the tragedy but to reassure children that we live in a safe place that is very far away from war.
I wouldn’t bring up the issue of nuclear war, but if your child has heard it discussed and has questions, you should talk about your feelings and what you know, including the fact that nuclear weapons have been around your entire life and there are numerous safeguards to prevent their use, which is one reason they were never used during very difficult periods between the United States and Russia.