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How to talk to your kids about Ukraine, according to psychologists

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) – Russia’s attack on Ukraine has caused international outrage, and people around the world are feeling the stress and fear of watching the violence and wondering what will come next.

That includes your children. With so many images of violence and so few answers, your kids likely are aware of the fighting even if it’s far away — and they are probably terrified.

It can be daunting to talk to kids, especially younger ones, about war, and it may feel better to preserve your little ones’ bliss by keeping the topic out of their awareness.

But just because they aren’t hearing it from you, doesn’t mean kids aren’t getting information elsewhere, said Lee Chambers, a psychologist based in the United Kingdom.

It’s possible to have a developmentally appropriate and reassuring conversation with your children about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but it’s important to be intentional and attentive to your individual child, Chambers said.

“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach,” he added. “All children are different.”


Monitor the TV
As adults worry about the state of the world, it may be tempting to keep the television on to stay abreast of every update — but psychologists say it could have impacts on kids in the home.

Children are like sponges, and often absorb more than we realize, Chambers said. They may be paying close attention to the images of bombs, missiles and violence, Chambers said.

Be open to questions
You can still stay informed, but be sure to provide context, said Wendy Rice, a psychologist based in Tampa, Florida.
“If you have small children especially, watch it with them if you’re going to watch, so they can ask some questions, and you can talk to them about what’s going on,” Rice said.

Your kids may be very curious, but if they aren’t interested or don’t have any questions, that is fine, too, she said.


Validate feelings while stressing safety

Conversations you have with your children should strive to remind them they are safe, while using age-appropriate language and avoiding normalizing war, Chambers said.

“I feel that it’s important to make sure that you create a space as a parent for your child to feel settled before you have that discussion,” he added.

But creating safety should not come at the cost of invalidating their fears, said Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based psychologist. “Sometimes what they need most is to know that they can express their feelings to an adult and that someone will take care of them.

“If they say something like ‘gee, I’m scared by this,’ we don’t want to say something like ‘don’t be scared,'” Carmichael said. “What they’re feeling is actually natural, so you can validate what they are saying like ‘yeah, you know, this is kind of a scary situation, but I want to see how I can help you to feel safe.'”


Find a way to take comforting action

It may also help to model for children that feelings aren’t meant to be managed until they are gone, and “sometimes they can inspire us to take some kind of a healthy action,” said Carmichael, author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.”

That action could mean looking for age-appropriate information together, Chambers said. It could also look like doing chores and projects to raise money for charities supporting Ukraine or writing letters to soldiers, Rice added.
Afterward, check in and ask how that action made them feel, Carmichael said.

“Mark that feeling, and notice that there was that positive sense even though it didn’t fix the world,” she added.


Remind them that it’s OK to be a kid
It’s great to teach children to respond to stress by taking action and helping others, but it’s also important to model to them that they can also continue to be kids and have fun, Carmichael said.

Make sure to reinforce that helping others is important, but that they also need to take care of themselves. Turn off the news, run around outside and have fun together, Carmichael stressed.

In times when the world seems uncertain, kids can look to the adults in their lives to learn the value of taking breaks and enjoying life, she added.

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