March 02, 2022
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
Who hasn’t been reflecting on the situation in Ukraine this week? Frankly, it has been hard to concentrate on anything else. As families, we may have dared to anticipate that March might be a month where we would see a return to some sort of normality. Instead, we may find ourselves fending off questions from children about nuclear weapons and third world wars.
Over the last two years, we have experienced the full range of emotions and types of anxiety. Health-related anxiety, social anxiety and climate anxiety have been particularly rife among young people. Now, we have a new one to add to the list: war anxiety. I have to say, as odd as it sounds, having grown up in a place that was steeped in conflict, the transition into a state of hypervigilance and grave concern for others isn’t a big adjustment. Feeling safe, physically safe, is something I value heavily and don’t take for granted.
For our children, watching a conflict unfold in real time, covered 24/7 across news channels, curated through social media and complete with footage from the trenches on TikTok, is understandably anxiety-inducing. Other people’s suffering is palpable and painful, leaving us, and our children, feeling helpless, sad and disempowered.
We need to give ourselves time to process our own feelings and emotions first, but, as parents (or educators), it’s also our responsibility to help our children navigate the challenging emotions that they may be experiencing with open and age-appropriate conversations.
We know that talking through scary things can help young people to process the wide range of emotions that they may be feeling. If our children seem worried, or ask questions about the war, it’s our job to be there providing a calm, listening ear. Make it clear that you welcome the opportunity to hear their thoughts and encourage them to talk about, and name, their emotions.
Try to find out what they already know and explore how it makes them feel. Be curious about what they’ve heard and where they heard it, and supportive of their concerns. Consider the values that you want to promote, and share honest, reliable information (very young children are likely to require minimal detail).
Help them to keep their perception of personal risk in proportion. If younger children are worried about their safety, it might be worth looking at a map together and showing them how far away we are from the conflict geographically. With children and young people of all ages, be led by their questions and get comfortable with the fact that you might not know all the answers (in fact, this is a good opportunity to do a bit of research together and model how to critically evaluate sources of information).
Combatting misinformation should be a key component of family discussions about events in Ukraine, especially with older children and teens. Once young people have access to the internet and social media (or they have friends who do), it’s very difficult for parents to control what ‘news’ they are seeing. A quick browse of recent fact-checking articles shows that misleading claims and images about the conflict, as well as purposeful disinformation, are rife online, especially on social media platforms widely used by young people, such as TikTok and Snapchat. We know that the risks posed by misleading narratives also become more severe in times of conflict.
Maintaining open channels of communication about what they are seeing is vital, as are ongoing conversations about the necessity of being a critical consumer, questioning the things that we see and the benefits of researching claims to check their accuracy. Pointing interested young people towards reputable information sources is crucial. If teens are very preoccupied with the news, consider suggesting that they limit their time scrolling, and provide them with plenty of opportunities for doing things that they enjoy, which keep them more in the present.
You might think about encouraging anxious older children to talk to older relatives or Grandparents about their own experiences of conflict. This is not the first time that we’ve lived under the threat of war in Europe (Millennials are likely to remember the Yugoslav wars during the 90s). Some family members may even remember receiving public awareness leaflets in the 1960s, which aimed to advise householders about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, a threat that was considered genuine at the time. It might be helpful to learn that the world has been in situations similar to this in the past and that they have been resolved.
It’s important to remind young people (and of course remember ourselves) of the need to be empathetic towards all people. In our multicultural society, your children may have friends from many nationalities, including Ukraine or Russia. Nudge them to demonstrate kindness to all of their peers. It’s important to critically consider ‘us vs them’ narratives and encourage young people to recognise and challenge meanness or bullying. This terrible situation also provides a good opportunity to talk about all the wonderful people in the world (look at all those volunteering to help), and how we can all make a difference with kindness.
Children should be reminded of different ways to seek support if they feel anxious, nudged to recognise who they can turn to in their network of family and friends and encouraged to remember help pathways at school. Prompt your child to consider things that cheer them up when they are feeling anxious or sad; activities that they enjoy, or friends that they can call upon for a chat or some distraction.
One of the best ways to empower ourselves and our children in situations where we otherwise feel helpless, is to take some positive action. Many charities are in need of donations to help the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have fled the conflict, as well as those who remain in their country. UNICEF are asking for money to help provide families with clean water and hygiene kits, Save The Children are distributing essential supplies, warm clothing, psychosocial and educational support, the British Red Cross is working closely with their Ukrainian counterparts to provide aid, Sunflower of Peace are on the ground in Ukraine trying to ensure the delivery of adequate medical supplies, the UN Refugee Agency is seeking donations and Voices of Children supports young people who have experienced war to overcome its impact.
If your child has strong views about the conflict, encourage them to write to your local MP, start their own fundraisers, or find out about local initiatives. They could even speak to their school about setting up a campaign to collect much needed supplies and send messages or letters of love and support to those suffering in Ukraine and its bordering countries. Nudging concerned children to help with acts of kindness can make them feel like they are contributing in some small way to a solution, give them a sense of agency and allow them to develop a growing sense of citizenship and empathy.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Parents in Tooled Up schools have access to many resources that encourage the development of vocabulary around emotions. Primary-aged children might enjoy using our Mood Thermometer or our new activity which focuses on Describing Anger (they could try making their own list of vocabulary about any emotion they are feeling). We also have numerous resources and activities designed to provide strategies for coping with anxiety.
As young people are gleaning much of their knowledge of what is going on in the world online, either on reputable news channels or via social media, cultivating digital literacy is vital. The Tooled Up library is full of resources that can help to kick start conversations about critical consumption. You’ll find them all by selecting ‘Digitally literate’ in our ‘advanced search’. Our top pick for starters is 50 Things to Ask Your Teen About Their Digital Diet, a set of conversation starters that will open up dialogue about how to approach online content.
Families interested in fundraising might find some inspiration in our list of ideas. Finally, I’m sure many of my readers are aware that it’s World Book Day this Thursday. If you’d like to give your child some reading material that will help to cultivate kindness and empathy, we have the perfect list of books already in the library.