Some general advice for children of all ages:
Check in with yourself first
In our brains we have mirror neurons, which literally means we feed off and mirror the emotions of those closest to us. Parents create the environment in the home and children will look to parents to see how they react, which determines how they should feel. You don’t have to pretend everything is great but you also don’t need to show them you feel terribly anxious either, as they may mirror that anxiety. It is very important that usual routines are maintained and the home feels as calm as possible.
Start by asking what they already know
They may know a lot more or less than you think and this way you can fill in any gaps. Children love to ask questions but when they do, it’s a good idea to gain some context with your own open-ended questions, such as “What do you mean by that?” “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about it?”
Always be honest
You need to decide what is age appropriate to share but they will have plenty of other sources of information, so it’s important that children know they can trust and rely on their parents. When I was a school teacher before having 4 children of my own, I learnt that when a child asks a difficult question, its OK to say “I don’t know” or “That’s a really important question. Can I think about that and come back to you?” You don’t need to have all the answers or respond straight away. If you say you will come back to them, then try to remember to!
Listen & understand
What children want more than anything, especially when it comes to navigating difficult emotions like fear, sadness and anxiety, is to be heard and understood. The very best thing you can do is just listen to what they say about how they feel and reflect it back to them. Don’t dismiss, deny or try to distract. Your main job is to help your child feel safe and secure. Be an ‘emotional container vessel’ by acknowledging, validating and normalising their feelings.
Keep the lines of communication open
This may be a conversation that you need to revisit multiple times, as the situation unfolds. Little and often, is preferable to a major download of information in one go. Be on the lookout for any signs of anxiety or stress, such as being unusually quiet, interrupted sleep, loss of appetite or trouble separating.
Younger children may not be very aware, concerned or interested in what is going on, so take your cue from them. Just let them know they can come to you if they have questions.
Saying that, young children are also very good at sensing when there is tension, even if they don’t understand what the adults are talking about.
They only need to know the basics. Look up sources of information that are carefully framed in a way that is suitable for young children, such as ‘Newsround’ or ‘The Week Junior’.
Show them on a map where the UK is, how far away another country is that they may have travelled to and where Ukraine is, so they get some sense of perspective. They need to know that Ukraine is far away and that they are safe. This age group are mainly concerned about how it will affect their daily life.
All behaviour is a form of communication, so be aware that children may act out when they feel adults are tense and anxious. Look for the feelings under the surface and tackle that first, the behvaiour is secondary.
Be careful about constantly having the news on in the background or exposing children to scary images. Also be conscious of adult conversations you are having that a child may over hear.
Give them outlets to express their emotions such as drawing, journaling, imaginative play, writing thoughts down on bits of paper and placing them in a ‘worry box’.
Older children will have multiple sources of information out of your control, such as the news, Tik-Tok or speaking to friends. The starting point is to determine what they already know and to check for any misinformation or confusion.
Give them an opportunity to ask any questions they wish. My 11 year old asked at the weekend, if we will need to use bomb shelters and if she will have to go and live in the countryside.
Practice gratitude. Each day share 3 things you are both grateful for, to focus on the positive.
Ask them if they have any ideas of how they could help, or if they want suggestions. Actively doing something can give a sense of real purpose and comfort.
It is highly likely that this age group will be receiving information from unreliable sources. The impact of what their peers tell them is very powerful. Invite them to keep asking questions and check in regularly to search accurate answers and information together. Family meals or car journeys provide a good opportunity to share what new facts you or they may have learnt about the conflict and where that information came from.
To enhance that feeling of safety, find out how the situation is being handled and how the world is responding. Encourage them to consider different opinions and narratives and explore how the same news story may be represented in various ways.
Invite them to actually do something constructive to help. One of my daughters visited an orphanage in Odessa in February 2020, so she can really identify with the children there.
A good tip to help older teens (and adults) manage uncertainty is to do a ‘brain dump’. Jot down the continuous stream of thoughts in your head and then put them into 2 categories. What is in your circle of control and what is out of your control? It helps to articulate your thoughts, even if you are not doing anything with them. It is a waste of time and energy to focus on what is out of your control.
Common Sense Media lists the best news sources for kids of various ages.