How to talk to your teenager about the invasion of Ukraine

Welcome to the Parents' Toolkit

How do you explain the invasion of Ukraine to your children?

Many parents, seeing what is happening on the news, will be asking this question, not knowing what to do for the best. Cover it up and tell them it’s all going to be fine? How do you do that when it’s all over social media, and Tik Tok is prompting young people to ask ‘Is this World War 3?’ My own youngest son asked me, ‘Is it like when Germany invaded in World War II, Mum?’

So, how best to respond to the natural curiosity and growing anxiety of our children at this terrifying time?

Reassure, but don't lie

Young people have access to a huge amount of news information, and will already be well aware that Russia has launched a military attack on Ukraine. There is no benefit to children of any age to pretend this isn’t a fact. Some reassurance about how close this is to their lives, however, will be helpful.

Maybe show them a map of Russia and Ukraine, so you can both visualise where these countries are in Europe and where you live. Tell them it is highly unlikely that they will be directly affected by the fighting and bombing that is happening in that region.

Manage your own emotional response

Young people are great at eavesdropping and may be listening to the conversations you are having with other adults. Be careful not to use alarming and dramatic language with others, and then change this when you speak to your own children. If they have heard you say to your friends that you are frightened and anxious, then also tell them that you feel this way.

Point out the difference between your fears for other people and your fears for them. Acknowledge that it is awful to think of other innocent people being hurt or killed, and absolutely encourage empathy, but, reassure them these atrocities are rare and make sure to separate this from their own direct experience.

Keep normal routines going

After any traumatic event, it is important that children and young people return to a normal routine as quickly as possible. It is no different if you are hearing about something, rather than directly experiencing it, and you should try to make sure that your teenager doesn’t stop doing anything they would normally do. So, whether it’s going to a swimming club, meeting up with friends, or just keeping to normal routines around getting up in the morning and meal times, these should continue.

Keep a sense of control

Teenagers may want to do something to make their views about the war known to others in the world. This can help to instil a sense of control over the situation and their feelings, which is useful to managing any growing anxiety. It will also help them to connect with other people who share the same feelings and opposition to the war.

Similarly, initiatives like donating to clothing collections and volunteering to help someone else who is suffering more directly (because they have family in Ukraine) helps young people to make sense of an unbelievable sequence of events.

Maintain stability at home

When war breaks out, the world feels uncontrollable and hard to make sense of. This may be keenly felt on the back of the pandemic, when young people have had so much of their sense of safety and stability taken away from them. Without making it too obvious, take time to instil the feeling that home is a safe environment where they are not under threat. Nothing has changed at home, in school or in their immediate environment. Life goes on as normal, as far as you and they are concerned. Try hard not to catastrophise about the future, as the ambiguity of ‘anything could happen next’ will send their anxiety soaring through the roof.

Manage your own feelings

It might not always seem apparent, but teens do take cues from their parents and carers, and if we are constantly watching the news, anxiously scrolling our phones for the latest bulletins, and referring to the war all the time (at the expense of engaging in our own everyday routines), they will immediately pick up on this and their anxiety will escalate. Talk to your friends and adult family members when you need to manage your own feelings, but try to model calm and normality around your child as much as possible. When they see you coping normally, it’s highly likely they will follow suit.

Fact check and check back in

Your teenager may come to you with all kinds of ‘facts’ which they have picked up through social media and conversations with peers. They might quote these to you, without it being obvious that part of what they want to do is check whether you think they are true. Try asking, ‘where did you hear that?’ and ‘tell me a bit more about that’, rather than saying simply, ‘that’s not true’.

If they’re confused around some of the language being used on the news or social media, share this handy guide from Newsround with them.

Depending on the impact these ‘facts’ have, and this will partly depend on their age, also try going back to them a few days later. Ask if they are still thinking about it, or if they want to know anything more.

Don't worry if they seem unconcerned

Many young people will be engaged in conversations about the war in Ukraine and be worried about it. Others will simply be more interested in their position in the next football match or their forthcoming exams, and this is fine.

Don’t force a conversation, or try to get them to engage in concerns about the war, if it isn’t something they want to think about or discuss. Let their response and interest levels guide you.

We hope these practical tips will help you to keep communication and connection going with your teenager, through what is unquestionably a challenging time. If you have any doubt at all about whether you are doing or have said the wrong thing, it’s best to be honest about it. Say something like, ‘actually, it’s scary, isn’t it - when we don’t know what’s going to happen? I’m not certain either.’

It can be hugely helpful during difficult times if we, as parents and carers, can model how best to live with uncertainty – while also showing the capacity to name and talk about complex feelings.

Dr Sheila Redfern is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre

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