Talking to kids about Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is distressing for everyone, but it may create extra anxiety for children who’ve only heard bits and pieces of what’s going on. What’s the best way to talk to children about such a fraught topic? We asked Abigail Gewirtz, a foundation professor at ASU’s Department of Psychology.

“It’s all over the news, and if you’re in this world and over the age of 3, you’re bound to be exposed to it,” Gewirtz said.

“I think the first thing that parents want to find out is what kids already do know,” Gewirtz said. “We often have this idea of a script that we should say, and we can’t wait to say it, and then our kids are like ‘What?'”

Gewirtz stressed the importance of understanding your own emotions before discussing stressful topics with your children.

“I always like to say that, unfortunately, a frightened parent can be a frightening parent to a young child,” Gewirtz said. “You have ways that you handle your own big emotions. Go and do that before talking to your children.”

When you do talk to them, Gewirtz said that it’s important to validate rather than dismiss their feelings.

“When you say ‘wipe those tears away, let’s go do something fun,’ the message you’re really giving them is, ‘they aren’t really to be trusted, these emotions, they can get you into trouble, just ignore them,'” Gewirtz said, “When actually, emotions are very important signals. They tell us when there is danger, when we need to watch out, when we need to think twice and maybe calm ourselves down.”

For young children, part of this process is helping them to label their emotions, Gewirtz said.

“First of all listen to them, watch them. You might say to your child ‘I can see that you’re looking down and your brow is furrowed and to me that says you’re worried,'” Gewirtz said. “Help them label what they’re feeling, and then you can go from that, to what they’re thinking.”

Gewirtz is the author of “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place,” a book explaining how negative world events can impact children.

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Abigail Gewirtz / foundation professor at ASU's Department of Psychology. 

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