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May 28, 2024

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Talking with kids about war or any other difficult subject matter should be kept age-appropriate and brief.

Talking to Kids About War

There's no 'one size fits all' for talking to kids about very difficult subjects and often parents need help with how to proceed.

Little kids will hear mommy and daddy talk about it; they’ll hear the word ‘war’ and hear the edge in your voice. A war has broken out in Ukraine (“What crane, Mommy?) and the world waits on edge. But when it comes to war, how do you speak to your older child’s confusion or the irritation of your teen? What do you say to a young child?

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for talking to your kids about this or any other catastrophic event,” said Vanderbilt professor of psychology Tedra Walden back in 2011 around the 1oth anniversary of 9/11. On that same occasion, Walden released the following tips for talking to children about a difficult topic such as 9/11. In keeping with the ‘no one size fits all’ approach, the following tips can apply to talking to kids about war or any emotionally charged or difficult topic you have with kids. Moreover, today, Walden is a Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology and Human Development, Emerita. Her interests include the effects of social factors on children’s emotional reactions to unfamiliar events.

Talking to Kids About War

• Especially for young children, keep it simple and probably short.

• Listen to your children’s questions and watch carefully their reaction to your answers.

If your child is getting too upset, tone down your answers. On the other hand, if your child has increasing curiosity, continue the discussion in order to develop your child’s awareness of unique events.

• Talk about the subject in developmentally appropriate ways; that is, discuss the subject in ways that fit the age and cognitive level of the child.

Very young children who do not yet have a firm grasp on the difference between reality and fiction may be confused. Older children may be interested in discussing causes of the events and the aftermath, and what happens next.

• Be honest and straightforward. You can talk about your feelings but gear them toward the child’s level of understanding.

• Children who watch television are more likely to be exposed to alarming descriptions and images. Depending on the age of your child, limiting exposure can be difficult. If the child is young, parents could opt to turn off the television or casually divert their attention. An older child will probably require more discussion.

Walden reminds parents that in any situation, children often react the way you react.
“If you are crying and upset then they are likely to get upset, but if you are more neutral, then they are likely to respond in a more neutral way.”
The most important thing to remember when talking to children about any tragic event, Walden says, is to focus the conversation toward the child’s level of understanding. Stay calm and watch for signs of stress in your child.


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