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Discussing war with children. Why "don’t cry" and "it’ll be OK" are bad

Ukrainian children, especially those who’ve been staying in the country during the last five months, in the time of active combat, have already become "children of war".

There’s probably no Ukrainian child left who has never discussed the war. Knowing the ways to talk about war with children for whom it’s a personal tragedy and the universal do’s and don’ts is crucial for everyone — peers, parents, and educators.

Even a child who isn’t inclined to talk about this topic will nonetheless be exposed to it by hearing discussions between adults or peers, news, and air raid alerts.

And while it’s easier to switch attention to a game, a book, a phone, friends, or other activities when talking about something happening to somebody somewhere, it’s much harder when the child becomes the subject of the discussion and cannot stop the inquiry due to their age or circumstances. It so happens that the more harsh and traumatic experiences a child has, the more interest it incites in other people.

Discussing war with a child: what shouldn’t be said

Excessive questioning can re-traumatize a child or worsen their emotional well-being.

The following is not recommended when talking to children:

  • Bringing up the subject of loss and asking questions about how the child’s parent or other significant person died. Expressing your opinion about the person who died and the circumstances of their death. Discussing it with other people in the child’s presence. Asking how the child feels now and whether they miss the person who died.
  • Trying to console the child by saying phrases like "It’ll be OK", "Don’t cry, you’ll get over it," or "At least you’ve been lucky to survive."
  • Trying to discover something in the child’s past, like family traditions, favorite places and people they’ve been there with, the toys they had, or their pets and what happened to them.
  • Wondering about the child’s family or friends who remained in the combat zone or occupied territories.
  • Asking about the shelling and fighting the child could witness, ruined buildings, deaths or injuries of other people, as well as the child’s feelings about them.
  • Discussing events that could be related to the child’s traumatic experiences in their presence.
  • Insisting on doing something the child is not ready, scared, or refusing to do.
  • Violating the child’s personal boundaries. You need to ask before you hug the child or take their hand.
  • Telling any information about the child without their consent. For instance, "This is (name), he/she is a displaced person, whose house was ruined in a bombing raid that killed his/her father. He/she will now live here and be our friend."

But then, what can you talk about?

The best option is to talk about things here and now and also a bit about dreams and wishes. You should try and create the spirit of trust, acceptance, and emotional safety and give the child an opportunity to choose the right time, person, and details to tell their story.

Working with children who suffered from war

When a child experiences grief, trauma, or stress, it’s very important for them to have adults nearby who can support, understand, and advise them, helping bring back the feeling of safety and the joy of life.

However, we live in a situation where adults have also lost the feeling of safety because of the war and are overwhelmed with emotions, grieving over their losses, and lack strength or emotional resources. You cannot share what you don’t have yourself or teach what you don’t know.

Many of us who have traveled by air have heard the standard safety briefing before the plane takes off, which says that in case of an emergency, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before putting one on your child.

Since our country is in what can be rightfully considered an emergency, every single person and society as a whole has to help themselves to be able to help children effectively.

In most cases, a child is able to accommodate loss and grief on their own. You need to know how to help and not impede this process.

One of the most important and effective steps is psychoeducation, which provides society with knowledge about normal responses to the abnormal events we are living through.

Gaining insight into what happens to us and our children, what responses can develop, how long they can last, and what will come next already gives us the feeling of safety and control over the situation, lowers anxiety, and prevents false conclusions.

Psychoeducation is a routine therapeutic intervention. For example, a physician consults the mother of an injured child, explaining that the child needs to wear a plaster for three weeks and that their leg can itch, hurt, or something like that. A rehabilitation period will follow, with certain activities and evaluations where some symptoms will prompt seeking medical attention, while others can resolve naturally.

Such an approach ensures that the mother is less anxious and has insight into her child’s condition, giving her the ability to console, advise, and support her child on their way to complete recovery.

That’s why it’s important that people around the child have basic knowledge of how children experience loss, the stages of grief, possible age-dependent reactions, and how they are manifested at the emotional, behavioral, and body level.

Adults must understand when additional support and intervention are required and when, on the contrary, the child needs time and space to heal.

In Ukraine, professional psychologists have held numerous psychoeducational workshops, lectures, and courses in recent months. Some are intended for the general public, while others are more specialized (for example, instruction for teachers, coaches, volunteers, social workers, or psychologists).

These events give insight into the manifestations of children’s behavior in the period of acute trauma and the post-traumatic period, the ways to monitor and respond to them, and possible cases where a specialist’s attention must be sought.

Since the impact of the war on our society will be felt for a long time, it’s important to develop the widest possible awareness of these approaches among those who work or communicate with children to be able to help them live through this harsh period.

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