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How to Talk to Your Children About Ukraine

February 25, 2022 | Nancy Van Epps

Written by Emily Ford Sytsma, Early Childhood Director

Media channels are flooded today with the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have all probably seen videos of explosions and people fleeing. We caregivers are again faced with the same question: What do we tell the children?  

As always at Mustard Seed School, we refer to the advice of Dr. Judith Schteingart, our school counselor. In the face of difficult news, Dr. Schteingart strongly recommends curtailing exposure to the reports. This advice pertains to all children, and to teens to every extent possible. Because images on screens and in print can make events appear both close and immediate, they often heighten anxiety and confusion.  

After you have turned off the screens, your approach to discussing the situation in Europe will depend largely on the age of your children, and your own family’s relationship with the people and areas involved.

Preschool children may not learn of these events at all. We won’t discuss the events at school now unless a child introduces the topic. If you decide to share the information with your children or if your child sees images or hears conversations about the conflict, they will primarily be worried about their safety. Some children may be concerned for the children in Ukraine.  It will be important to stress that this conflict is happening very far away from us. You may show New Jersey and Ukraine on a map or globe. Help them understand that the grownups in Ukraine are making plans for their children just like you make plans to keep your own family safe. You can talk about what you do to prepare for storms or discuss the fire safety plans and devices you have in your home (and that we have at school) that equip everyone to be safe in an emergency. Assure them that all over the world, grownups take care of children and that they are safe here, far away from the problem.  

Lower School children may grasp more information, even with limited exposure. Next week, teachers will likely begin to ask what the students have heard and provide a time to discuss the events with facilitation. Children this age may want to know why Russia and Ukraine are fighting. You can explain that just like people can have conflicts and struggles with each other, disputes can happen between nations that lead to fighting. At this age, children are very interested in fairness and consequences. So, you can explain that leaders around the world are trying to talk with the nations involved to help and support any possible solutions to end the fighting and to bring peace to the area. You could explain the economic sanctions by comparing them to the ways parents use timeout or withholding of allowance when children have broken rules or chosen bad actions. Again, reassure them that they are safe and that world leaders are coming together to help protect those who are in danger.

Middle School students are able to understand more of the context and implications of the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Children in these classes likely discussed the conflict at school today.  At home, you can begin by asking what they have heard. Consider watching a news report or reading an article together to model how concerned citizens stay educated about what is happening in the world. Find resources so that you can learn together about the history of the region; or just share what you know. As you explore information with them, it is always good to review how to evaluate the credibility of news sources (TikTok vs. A.P.) and what kinds of information you can obtain and trust from different sources. You may also consider referencing some of the more nuanced issues of the situation; perhaps that some possible U.S. responses could cause prices to rise because there are consequences based on how much countries depend on each other for goods and services. You may want to discuss when standing up for certain values and principles is critical even if doing so causes some economic pain and hardship. Perhaps you can ask whether this feels like a time when standing up is the right thing to do, and suggest that in international conflicts there are often no clear right answers. There are different sides to the story, and you can share your feelings, and the assumptions and principles that drive your opinions. This background will help your Middle School child develop critical thinking skills and is also an opportunity for them to hear the basis for your values .

When things feel out of control, it helps children of all ages to find a way to act or serve in response. Consider making a family plan to respond to the needs of the people involved.  

  • Help your child write a letter to an elected official.
  • Make a family donation to an international aid organization.  
  • Attend a vigil or demonstration together.  
  • Include affected people in your family prayers. Below is a prayer written by a MSS Middle School student today and shared at the worship time if you would like to use it at home:

We pray for Ukraine that Russia invaded. We also pray that the trains to Poland and surrounding countries don’t fail. We hope this war will stop. Amen

Thinking about war is scary, even when it’s far away. Providing children with opportunities to process what they are hearing and seeing with trusted adults will give them the tools they need to cope even when afraid.

Nancy Van Epps

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