Ukraine crisis: Mental health experts on how to talk to children about war and conflict

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine advancesnews and images of human suffering and destruction are harrowing and anxiety inducer for each individual. And while as adults we often have better tools to deal with nervousness and uncertainty about the future, children often don’t, especially those in their mid-toddlers (ages 5-12). How can you address their confusions and questions with an open and honest discussion?

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Should you talk about it?

Dr. Samir Parikh, Director of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare says the key is to understand “any time a child is exposed to anything in the media, there needs to be a conversation about it, because if the parents do not help children to understand and assimilate that information, it will be left to the child’s own interpretation and may risk misunderstandings, develop emotional reactions and have behavioral changes. Right now, war is something that is covered a lot around him; it is important to sensitively explain to them what is really going on based on their age group and understanding.”

Younger children may not distinguish between on-screen images and their own personal reality, and therefore may believe they are in immediate danger, even if the conflict is occurring far away, recalls Dr. Abhijit Bagde, a consultant pediatrician. and senior pediatric intensivist at Apollo Hospitals. Navi Bombay. It is still important to have the conversation to explain to children that there are people in the world who can do harmful things that impact others. “Children should not live in a bubble. They should know that there are unfavorable events happening everywhere,” says Dr. Valli Kiran, a consultant psychiatrist at SPARSH Hospital.

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How should you do it?

The focus of parents and teachers, when talking to children, should be on the learning component: how is it bad, how is it harmful, why should it be avoided, why is it important to find peace without fighting, says Dr. Parikh . For some parents, it can be difficult to approach the conversation if the child does not verbally express her anxiety. In such a case, Dr. Bagde suggests “finding out what they know and how they feel, what the source of the information was.” “Once the child begins to express the thoughts, this can reduce her anxiety about it. At first, some children may have a hard time getting the right words out. However, listening to the child’s mind, being patient, and validating feelings are important initial steps.”

For children in the age group of 6-12 years, it is difficult to understand the realistic image of war. “One can try to simplify it and explain it to them based on the amount of interest and the ability to absorb information. If they show that ability, you can share information bit by bit without overwhelming them with details,” advises Dr. Kiran.

To this, Dr. Parikh adds: “Make sure your routines are normal, use play and creative ways like reading and writing to express yourself. Also, choose teachable moments when they are watching something, provide open spaces for them to talk.”

check your emotions

In most cases, young children often react to their parental angst. The sight of a disturbed/anxious/angry parent can be somewhat disturbing to the child. “It is important to monitor his own emotions when he talks about war,” recalls Dr. Bagde, adding that “the father must use the right words, tone and timing to provide some facts and explanations without going into too much detail. details. Parents’ reassuring words are very important for the child’s temperament.”

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How to answer questions

How much to discuss and what to discuss when it comes to war and death depends on the age and development of the child. Once the dialogue begins, the child is likely to ask some tough questions. “For some questions, parents can always use phrases like ‘I don’t know,’ ‘let me read and I’ll get back to you later,’” says Dr. Bagde. He adds that it’s okay for parents not to know or explain everything. Historical examples and stories can also be used as references.

It is also important to assure them of their safety and based on their ability to take things, “parents should give explanations that are psychologically safe without worrying too much about being scientifically correct.” “We can simplify things in a way that they can absorb, and once they grow up, they will understand and have a much more sophisticated understanding of the issues,” says Dr. Kiran.

Exposure to news and visuals.

“Exposure to violence, war and devastation is harmful in principle; children can develop reactions, and there is evidence that it can be traumatic and also become a future experience of anxiety, ”warns Dr. Parikh. This is why it is important to monitor and limit the amount and type of exposure children have to images and news from the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“Be careful what you’re looking at. It is best to avoid any kind of bloody content when children are around. If children are interested in learning about war, make sure you choose the right content that helps them understand things in a simple way,” suggests Dr. Kiran.

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What if they are not interested?

You can avoid having a discussion about the topic if your child has not been exposed to the news or images at all, or is not interested in the topic. “Unless they come up to you and ask you questions or show some sort of curiosity, parents and teachers shouldn’t deliberately explain things like war to young children. If they are over 8 years old and show some interest, then one can try to explain to them in simple terms without going into gory detail,” advises Dr. Kiran, who emphasizes the importance of censoring images and information for children.

behavior changes

Dr. Bagde says it’s important to watch for behavioral changes in children. “These include sleep disorders (nightmares, difficulty falling asleep or repeated awakenings at night), loss of appetitespontaneous sobbing or crying and excessive attachment to parents”.

“Low academic performance, inability to concentrate may also be more common symptoms for older children. These are several common symptoms expressed by children of different age groups,” she says, advising, “If you notice any of them, speaking honest, reassuring words to the child is key. If you perceive that the child is severely affected, parents or teachers can always seek professional guidance from paediatricians, psychiatrists and counselors.”

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