How Do You Talk With Your Child About War?

By Melanie Wells, NYC-Parents in Action Editor


When I was in second grade, I overheard a radio broadcast about a war, somewhere. Even at age 7, it wasn’t an abstract concept. Memories of World War II were only a little over a decade old and adults often referred to it. The broadcast terrified me but I didn’t tell my parents. Instead, I assumed the worst, stewed over it all night, and went to school the next day still scared. At recess, I told all my friends I’d heard on the radio that a war was coming.


Word sped from the swings to the slide and back again, so by the time recess ended the whole class swarmed in hysterical, bombarding our bewildered teacher with questions about “the war.” She quickly got it out of them that I was the source of the “heard on the radio” alarm. After her calm reassurance that there was no war, and a lesson on not believing everything you hear, the teacher banished me to the cloakroom for 10 minutes, where I could ponder the errors of rumor-mongering.


We live in a different age now.  The radio is the least of our worries as we monitor our kids’ news exposure. It’s not just words, it’s also graphic imagery, pouring in on a constant stream designed to capture eyeballs that’ll stay glued and keep scrolling. Following a violent invasion of a peaceful democracy, the visceral content has ratcheted way up. Your children will see and hear details even if you don’t bring it up. And if you do, what should you say? How do you handle scary news forthrightly, reassuringly, appropriately?


As Amy Joyce notes, in her March 1 article in The Washington Post’s Parenting section:

“If you think your kids don’t know about Putin’s war against Ukraine, you’re wrong. They’re hearing about it, and as their caretakers, we need to make sure information is correct — and that they aren’t immediately anxious that we’re on the verge of World War III.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says this debacle is likely to have staying power, similar to the impact the Cuban missile crisis had on him at age 11: “…this won’t be something they’ll forget,” he says. And, adds Caroline Netchvolodoff, vice president of education at the Council on Foreign Relations, even children too young to access much from the media will pick up on parental worries: “I have four sons. One of the things I’ve learned very clearly is kids do pick up on what their parents are anxious about…”

If you think your kids don’t know about Putin’s war against Ukraine, you’re wrong. They’re hearing about it, and as caretakers, we need to make sure information is correct –and that they aren’t immediately anxious that we’re on the verge of World War III. -Amy Joyce, Washington Post

 She stressed the importance of tailoring discussions to the age of the child, and of using different approaches accordingly, noting that they’re “dodging a lot of misinformation.”


To correct for that, consider bringing your teens into your own learning experience. Adults, too, must dodge disinformation. Consider “co-learning,” as Julie Silverbrook, senior director of partnerships at iCivics (a non-profit promoting civics education and teacher resources) suggests. She notes that the Council on Foreign Relations, in cooperation with iCivics has “recently created ‘Convene the Council,’ an online game for ages 12 and up aimed at showing how the president of the United States makes foreign policy decisions.” You might sit with a tween or teen and explore this game – and learn something helpful together.


With younger kids, including the youngest tweens, experts recommend starting with a question about what they’ve heard and what they think is happening, rather than putting words into their mouths. This way you can meet children where they are, tailoring your responses to actual concerns.  A March 1 New York Times article, by Melinda Wenner Moyer, makes this point, with examples:

“My tween called me at work yesterday to ask me if this was World War III,” said Emily W. King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, N.C.  However, she adds, the question alone may not mean the child is upset. Sometimes it’s just curiosity, and parents can take their cue from the child. Many kids “will just ask us questions out of curiosity,” Dr. King said. If they do, “try to answer calmly and accurately, without getting overly emotional yourself.”

Many kids will just ask us questions out of curiousity… if they do…try to answer calmly and accurately, wihthout getting overly emotional yourself. -Emily W. King, Child Psychologist

“If they don’t seem all that interested in what’s happening, that’s OK, too, said Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist. “You don’t need to push it,” she said, “but at least broach the topic.” Keep the door open to talk later. Say, “Look, I totally get that you’re not interested in this moment. But if you are, please come to me,’ she said.”


Don’t forget the power to counteract feelings of helplessness via service – young people instinctively love to help. Encourage empathy. Suggest finding ways to help charities that are collecting resources to help the people closer to the threat.


With kids of any age, watch for physical and emotional signs of anxiety. Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist at the Atria Institute and pediatrician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, recommends monitoring your child for loss of appetite, sleeplessness, irritability, mood or behavior changes. If you see these signs, Dr. Talib suggests letting them know you’re “there to talk.” Dr. Talib also warns to be aware of “doomscrolling” and the importance of teaching kids to make “smart media choices.” She suggests asking kids “which news sources they are following and why, and what coverage has helped them understand more … versus made their heart race more.” Common Sense Media provides useful tips on handling kids’ exposure to news media and on becoming a more savvy, discriminating and safe media consumer.


Finally, avoid inadvertently subjecting your child to your own news consumption if it’s not appropriate. Dr. Silverman notes, although you “want to keep abreast of the news, be aware that your child may be watching or listening, too. ‘Having news on, where there’s constantly images circulating that may be disturbing to them — that’s not going to be your best choice.’”

Be aware that your child may be watching or listening…Having news on, when there’s constantly images circulating that may be disturbing to them –that’s not going to be your best choice. -Robyn Silverman, Child and Teen Development Specialist

That would’ve been great advice for my family back in 1958, with the radio broadcast in the background. Hypervigilance isn’t always necessary, but remember that kids always watch and listen. Be their filter when it’s needed. And if too much slips past the filter, stand ready to be their sounding board, their calm dialog partner and above all, their loving comforter.


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