How should we talk to our children about the war in Ukraine?

Handout photo issued by Maia Mikhaluk of damage to property in Kyiv, Ukraine, caused by an explosion

Handout photo issued by Maia Mikhaluk of damage to property in Kyiv, Ukraine, caused by an explosion during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. - Credit: PA

What should we say to our children about the war in Ukraine?  Should we be shielding them from the news?  How much should we tell them?  What should we do if they are upset?

There are no simple ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers to questions like these. It depends on the age of the child, their understanding of the world, their own previous experiences.  We don’t want to add to their worries but we do want to support their development as rounded, compassionate, resilient human beings and help them to understand the world and their place in it.  

We also need them to feel they have a voice and can be empowered to make changes for the better as they clearly need to do a better job than we have done to secure a safe future for our planet.     

We always encourage children and young people to talk to a trusted adult if they are upset but it is important that adults know what to say.  If you are asked, don’t rush to provide answers, keep the conversation open and give reassurance that it is good to talk.

Find out what they already know, what have they seen? It might be that they have just seen something upsetting on TV and they need to tell you. What they say, their level of understanding about it as they talk, will help you to decide how to respond and what to say.

Listen, acknowledge their feelings, and tell them that it is normal to feel upset, confused or angry about what is happening.

Be honest about not knowing when you need to be, but be factual where you can.  Talk about what we know and how we know it.  We all need to be able to spot ‘fake news’ and learn to discern the truth and this is not easy.  

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This generation of children are more connected with their counterparts across the world than ever before.  

They will feel they have much in common with young people in other countries and will more easily empathise with the plight of the children and families in Ukraine.  We have children in our schools from Ukraine and neighbouring countries.  Understandably we all feel we want to help and we must encourage our young people to feel they can do something meaningful.

They may want to write a letter, make a charity donation, or carry out an act of kindness to someone in their own family or community.  People are being ingenious - I heard of an English woman who booked and paid for an AirB&B in Kyiv - a small act of kindness which was received as such by a Ukrainian family hiding in a basement and fearing for their lives.  

You may not be able to answer all of their questions - how can we explain the ludicracy of war.  It is never right or good for humans to kill each other and we have a right to live peacefully.  

We have seen Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their children, desperately trying to shield them from the terror they must feel.  Wherever children are, they need to feel safe and they need to feel loved.  Luckily, there is a basic instinct in most humans to protect and care for their young.  

When talking with your children, always keep in mind that they will cope best if they themselves feel safe and loved. These terrible events are very rare and our children need to believe that they will end, and life will be ok.    

Further information and advice is available from a range of organisations.  

BBC’s Newsround and their website provides additional follow up information as well as advice about what to do if you feel upset by the news.

The Department for Education (DfE) has provided, “Help for teachers and families to talk to pupils about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how to help them avoid misinformation”.

Educate Against Hate provides guidance on misinformation, diverse perspectives and helping young people to talk about the news and navigate complex and sensitive topics. 

Childline (Worrying about Russia and Ukraine) offers telephone support and online guidance for children worried about the war in Ukraine and advises them to - Talk to someone you can trust - Get the facts - Take a break - Do something positive.  Their telephone number is 0800 1111.

- Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of primary schools across Suffolk.