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How to Talk to Children About War - Tips from a School Psychologist

teacher sitting with her students on the ground
Nina Bulajić, Bloom's Psychologist and Principal with her students

If we look back at the last five years, humanity has faced a series of global problems that have significantly affected the quality of life and mental health of children and adults. A pandemic, inflation, increases in crime and violence, conflicts, wars... Unfortunately, we live in very uncertain and unstable times in which it is challenging to find a glimmer of beauty; something that pushes us ahead and makes life easier. Each of us turns to what gives us strength and impetus to move forward: family, friends, hobbies, time for ourselves, travel, nature...

Despite these "small, safe world" we create, it is impossible to remain immune to the horrors of war that are happening in the world. Every day social networks, media, newspapers and websites report inhuman brutalities and crimes. Real and fake news appear as triggers, which - along with everyday life stressors - instigate feelings of fear, insecurity, anxiety, and create new or awaken repressed traumas.

If we ourselves have experienced the horrors of war, the need to protect our children, and maybe completely exclude them from these topics, is even stronger, because we ourselves are fighting with our own repressed demons. If this is also the case with you as parents: know that is this completely alright. In order to be able to have conversations with your children on the topic of war, you must first be prepared, both intellectually and emotionally, for that type of conversation. You are people, made of flesh and blood, with your own fears and worries and it's perfectly okay not to feel empowered or ready to have a conversation with your children. It is not easy to be a parent and balance all the roles and expectations placed before you. But it is certainly one of the most important roles - a priceless role. Give yourself the time and space you need.

However, keep in mind that, despite your best intentions and shielding measures, you cannot protect your children from everything. They are interacting with their peers, media and social networks, and a lot of information is reaching them. Therefore, it is our duty to provide them with accurate, truthful and age-appropriate information.

If you decide to have this conversation with your children, here are some tips that can be useful:

  1. These are very delicate topics, they require a lot of time and mental readiness for conversations like these. Don't rush the conversation if you're not ready. Don't let a sense of responsibility or pressure to do it as soon as possible put you in a position you're not ready for. Such a conversation can be counterproductive for both the child and you.

  2. When it comes to wars and suffering, it is impossible to exclude emotions - we are human and it is natural that such events affect us all. In some stories, we recognize our own life and experience and identify with them, and experience them even more strongly. However, feelings are one thing and opinion is quite another. As if the tragedy of the events themselves was not enough, disinformation, as well as the impossibility of objective reporting, make the situation even more difficult. So we define wars as crimes against innocent civilians. More importantly, you should minimize content from the media, both for your and your children's well-being.

  3. A good start is to ask the children what they know and how they feel. Give them the space to ask questions. If you do not know the answer to a question, write it down and honestly say that you are not sure how to answer that question. Stick to verified information, without making assumptions and giving your own theories. Also, be careful not to over explain the situation or go into too much detail as this can unnecessarily increase anxiety.

  4. Take into account the child's age. Younger children may not understand what conflict or war means and require an age-appropriate explanation. Younger children may be content just to understand that sometimes countries fight. Older children will often be more concerned about talking about war because they tend to understand the dangers better than younger children.

  5. Focus on children's feelings, concerns and questions and let them know that restlessness, worry, fear (if they feel them) are natural. When we give children the opportunity to have an open and honest conversation about the things that worry them, in that way we create relief and a sense of security in them.

  6. Remind children that wars are not their problems to solve. They don't need to feel guilty about playing, seeing their friends and doing things that make them happy.

  7. Support children who want to help and contribute. Children who have the opportunity to help those affected by conflict can feel like they are part of the solution. Children can create fundraisers, send letters of support or draw pictures calling for peace.

  8. The conversation goes as far as they want, without forcing and calling children to express their opinion, if they are not ready for it.

“If you want to end war, then instead of sending weapons, send books. Instead of sending tanks, send pens. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers.” - Malala Yousafzai

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