How to Talk to Kids About War: A Clinical Psychologist Shares Tips for Parents on Talking About War With Children & Teens by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
The horrific terrorist attacks in Israel and the ensuing war against Hamas in Gaza have stunned the world. Whether it's the military battles in the Middle East, in Ukraine or elsewhere, parents need to talk to their children about war because it's an unfortunate reality of life. Children don’t have the cognitive or emotional ability to fully understand and make sense of the information they (over)hear. When a child isn’t given context and information in a way they are able to grasp, their minds often create very unrealistic and scary situations with them at the center of conflict.
Here are some tips on how to talk to your children or teens about war:
When You Don't Need to Talk About It
If a child is very young, doesn't have the cognitive capacity to understand or is currently going through their own trauma, I would hold off on talking specifically about war.
The Best Way to Approach the Subject of War With Children
- Start with a story about conflict resolution they know well and understand.
- Ask your child if they know of any conflicts around them. (This gives you a sense of what they know or how they perceive conflict.)
- Talk about past wars and why they happened and how they resolved. Always mention the heroes and brave “ordinary people” who changed the course of history.
- Process current conflicts, from family or classroom feuds to wars in other parts of the world.
- Finally, wrap up the conversation with reassurances and reasons of why your child is as safe as they can be. (This obviously varies depending on current life circumstances.)
Some Specifics for Parents
- Make sure you pick an optimal time to talk to your child – make sure they are rested, fed and have released extra energy.
- If the topic comes up organically and you don't feel prepared to talk about it at the moment, simply let them know you’re tabling the topic for now but want to revisit it with them on X date and Y time.
- Use words and metaphors your child can relate to when giving examples.
- If you feel yourself become emotionally overwhelmed or triggered when talking about it, let your child know you need to pause the conversation but you will pick it up again at Y time.
- Don’t use words your child won’t understand. If you need to use words they’ve not heard before, please define the word and give it in context.
- If your child asks to see images or videos (they may already be seeing them on their social media, in school or even accidentally looking over someone's shoulder), talk to them about why they are interested. Depending on what they say, you decide whether to look at some together and process those or not, depending on their cognitive understanding. Always preview the snippets you show them. Ask them what they’ve been seeing, and talk about the importance of being informed without overwhelming themselves.
- Talk about reputable sites to get their information.
- Identify ways you can help in your community, or globally, by volunteering.
Be willing and open to talking about whatever concerns your child whenever they want or need. Don’t have one conversation and think it’s “over.” Check in with them periodically and let them know you’re there to chat.
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