How do we explain the inexplicable? The news and images coming out of the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine are tough enough for parents to process, let alone kids. How can we possibly make sense of it for them? Should we even try? It can be tempting to cover their eyes and ears. It’s too terrible. But even the youngest children will sense their parents’ unease and will hear adult conversations. We must shield children from gruesome images and stories but we mustn’t shield them from the truth or our guidance.
Seek the stories of heroes who have helped others, stories of strength in the face of danger, stories of resilience.
Think about yourself first: Start by thinking deeply about how you are reacting to the war. What feelings come up for yourself? Your children probably feel similar but more confused. If you can’t sleep, if your work or home life is affected, seek counseling to guide you through. You are always the model of behavior for your children. Teach them to ask for help when help is needed.
Look for ways your child can participate in supporting Ukrainian refugees. Show your child that the efforts to help the Ukrainian people are coming from all over the world.
Talk about kindness and helpers: When you talk to your children about war remember to remind them that most people are good. Seek the stories of heroes who have helped others, stories of strength in the face of danger, stories of resilience. Most of all, seek stories of kindness. Seek stories of community. Remind your children that there are always helpers, even in wars. There are those that will help older people carry heavy bags. There are strangers going to the borders bringing clothes and food. Kindness and empathy are not trapped by distance or difference. Look for ways your child can participate in supporting Ukrainian refugees. Show your child that the efforts to help the Ukrainian people are coming from all over the world.
Tell children one of their greatest powers is their ability to make peace.
Talk about conflict: Children are familiar with conflict. From toddlerhood they’ve navigated conflict over toys, food, and not getting their way. Every parent teaches diplomacy every day. Every child makes compromises to keep peace. They instinctually understand the need to make peace and parents instinctually teach it, i.e. “Share that cookie with your sister.” Teach children to recognize the ways they make peace. Then point out examples in their day to day life when they chose peace (maybe they gave the half a cookie without complaining). Tell children one of their greatest powers is their ability to make peace. Teach children there are people whose entire job is to make peace. Just like there are doctors, nurses, and teachers, there are diplomats.
And I felt in awe of the complexity of humans and of all the good in the world, even in the face of something terrible.
Yesterday I saw a Ukrainian flag hung on a highway overpass near where I live. Images flashed through my mind of Ukrainian mothers huddling in bomb shelters. An image came to mind of a young boy carrying his little sister piggyback as they walked miles in the cold to the border. My heart breaks for them. Then I thought again of that little boy carrying his sister. I thought of his parents who taught him to be a helper. I thought of how these siblings have certainly fought and made up many times over. I thought of every child’s power to make peace. His parents should be proud. I thought of the stories of Europeans bringing boxes of food and clothes to help refugees like them. I thought of people in my community raising money to help the Ukraine people and taking the time to hang a Ukrainian flag. I thought of all the helpers, all the kindness and empathy. And I felt in awe of the complexity of humans and of all the good in the world, even in the face of something terrible.
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.