Talking to Children About War

News headlines and images of war can provoke a range of uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, fear, anger and sadness in us all, no matter our age. For children, conversations with parents can help facilitate the child’s understanding and process their emotional response to the situation.  Following are some considerations for how to structure those conversations.  We would also like to acknowledge that each family will also possess their own historical and socio-cultural experiences of 'war' and this will influence your child's and your own understanding and perspective on this conflict and thus the conversations that you have together as a family.  Past experiences of loss and/or trauma may also impact the child’s reaction to hearing about a war occuring in the world.

In thinking about having the conversation, choose a time and location that allows you to bring up the topic naturally and your child to feel comfortable so they can talk openly and honestly with you. Aim to avoid talking about the topic at bedtime.  If your child is the one to raise the war first, try to make time in the moment to listen to your child’s concern. If you feel the situation doesn’t support the conversation taking place at that time, gently let your child know that this is a conversation that you want to have with them so you can understand their thoughts and feelings about the situation and then make an agreed upon time and place to have the conversation. 

When having the conversation, a good starting point is to ask your child what they know and how they are feeling. Some children may know very little about what is happening and also not be interested in talking about it, others might be worrying about it and scared to bring up the topic with you. Your child may have formed a completely different picture of the situation than you have. Take the time to listen to what they think, and what they have seen or heard and how they feel about this.

Be mindful of the child’s age, personality characteristics and experiences as you approach the conversation with them. Young children may not understand what conflict or war means and require an age-appropriate explanation. Keep messages factual. Younger children may be satisfied by understanding that sometimes countries fight. For children 5-8 years the messages should be short and clear. Messages could include: “There’s a war far away. We’re safe but we’re praying for the people there.” If a child asks, “Why are they fighting?” you can say, “They’re fighting over who should be in charge but it is far away from here.” Children may have many questions. These should be addressed directly and simply at a level they can understand. Be careful not to over-explain the situation or go into too much detail as this can make children unnecessarily anxious.

Some primary school-aged children can be fascinated and preoccupied by war, weapons, and strategy. While we don’t want to scare children, it is important for them to understand the seriousness of war and that wars help remind us of the importance of safety and respectful behaviour all the time.  It is also helpful to refrain from using stereotypical language of ‘goodies and baddies’. Older children are more likely to understand what war means but may still benefit from talking with you about the situation. In fact, older children will often be more concerned by talk of war because they tend to understand the dangers better than younger children do. 

We appreciate that war is an emotive topic of conversation. However, when having this conversation with your child, try to stay calm. Children will often adopt the feelings and opinions of their caregivers. If you are worried and upset about the situation, chances are your child will be as well. 

Validate their feelings and show empathy and compassion. When children share a fear, whether it seems logical or not, be respectful, accepting, and understanding. Encourage your child to describe her feelings or those she has for children in war zones. Listening to fears is a simple way to show support as you get a clearer picture of what your child is thinking and experiencing. Express empathy by telling the child it’s understandable to be afraid or to feel sad. It is important that children feel supported in the conversation. They should not feel judged or have their concerns dismissed. When children have the chance to have an open and honest conversation about things upsetting them, it can create a sense of relief and safety. 

Children may express fears so they can be reminded that they are loved, cared for and protected. It never hurts to let them know that keeping them safe is your priority. Provide reassurance to children and that they can come and speak to you if they have more feelings or concerns.

As well as their own personal safety, children may be worried about the well-being of family, peers, and other adults in their lives (e.g., teachers, neighbours, coaches). Reassure them that adults all over the world are working hard to resolve this situation. Children may express that they feel guilty about playing, seeing their friends, and doing the things that they enjoy. Let them know that it is understandable.  But it may be more helpful for us to feel a sense of gratitude for those things. Your family members may want to share with each other what the war has reminded you to be grateful for in your lives.   

Studies have shown that when we are helping others, we improve our coping and reduce our distress. If we can support children who want to help and provide the children ideas on what they can do - such as praying for the people in the war, donating to specific charities, this may help them at this time.

Catherine McKersie
School Counsellor