First of all, I wanted to write to you all about the Russian-Ukraine war as I know that it can be a great source of anxiety in children and teenagers. I also want to mention that I would like to send my love and support to all the victims of violence. At this time, I am sending special love and support to Ukraine. Despite not being a very religious person, I am praying for the war to stop.
I cannot start to imagine what children and families are going through in Ukraine, but my ability to help it is limited. Writing this article is motivated by my vision to support parents and children the best way I can. I find one of the best things I can do is share my experience as a life coach for children and teenagers and what I have learnt that could help those kids struggling to make sense of what’s happening. I spoke briefly about some of these coping strategies a few years ago when the Grenfell tragedy struck.
I also want to mention that, hopefully, what I am relating below doesn’t apply to you or your children. The teachers I have talked with don’t seem too concerned but are aware they will need to address the topic at some point. If you still choose to read the article, it might give you some ideas as to how to address other difficult topics.
So, why am I a bit concerned about the Russian-Ukraine War?
After two years of a pandemic, a war has started in Ukraine. If our children hadn’t gone through lockdown, fear, anxieties, and complete disruption already, this awful news now comes on the back of all these.
Despite being a Life coach for children, I have to admit I have taken my eye off the ball. Over the last two years, there has been so much going on, when the war started I have to say that part of me said: What else can happen now? Do I have the strength to deal with this? Somehow, I felt a combination of exhaustion from extremely bad news, sadness and, let’s be honest, worry. These combinations made it difficult for me to think deeply about those that we have to care for in these moments.
A conversation with my teenage daughter brought it all to the surface yesterday. As we were having dinner, she asked: If Putin attacks Amsterdam or London, would we flee? Where to? After all, a Russian-Ukraine war is a global affair.
Initially, I dismissed it as a teenager playing in her mind with current topics, but it quickly became apparent that she was slightly worried (I can tell because her laugh becomes a bit forced). It turns out these conversations are happening without us (parents). My daughters – and I can imagine, virtually every teenager is exposed to loads of very visual and hurtful information. They are picking up ideas and making statements. My daughter said, “Somebody told me that it is very likely that Putin will invade us now”.
That’s when the penny dropped for me. The fear is there, the lack of clarity, the uncertainty, the powerlessness that we are all affected by, is also reaching them.
So how can we help children and teenagers process the Russian-Ukraine war?
Children and Teenagers should be able to talk nonsense, laugh at silly things, misbehave from time to time and feel a bit careless. Then, start from scratch again the next day. For the last two years, this has been taken away from them, and now it is a very real war not far from our doorstep.
And this is my first advice to you as a life coach for children: please do not play it down.
Children and teenagers are exposed to a huge amount of information that we, parents and teachers, don’t control and they are making assumptions about this. They might be worried and scared. Also, remember this is not just another event, it builds on the fears and worries of the last two years and it is very close to us.
So, what is it that we can do? How do we talk with children about the war in Ukraine?
I am sure there is a lot of great advice available already (I will include some links at the end of the article) and this is just my point as a life coach for children and teenagers.
I want to share with you 5 points for you to think about. Here is a summary and below I will go into a bit more depth with each of these.
Do not assume your child/teenager is immune to it.
Obviously, teenagers are seeing the news on TikTok and the conversations about the Russian-Ukraine war are happening. This means that they are consuming probably a vast amount of information that we, if you are of my generation, probably are not seeing. A lot of that information might be right but experience tells me a lot of it will be wrong or even made up (fake news) for clicks and likes purposes (unfortunately).
Younger children might not have access to a mobile device but they are very likely to be exposed to the news as well. Maybe you are watching it on TV, the news bulletins on the car radio when you are taking them to school. I am aware some schools provide news for children (i.e. BBC) and this will certainly feature there.
Again, most children will see it as something distant but some children might be more affected by it.
Over the last year, virtually every one of my colleagues who work with children say the same: We are seeing more and more severe cases ((anxieties, OCD, nightmares, aggressive behaviour than ever before). Just imagine how fragile some children might be feeling now.
I certainly hope that your child is well and grounded and only appropriately concerned about the events, but please do not take it for granted.
Have the conversation: address or create the conversation
As it happened with my daughter, they will eventually share information. It might be a comment somebody made, it might be a question, it might be your kids talking between themselves. If this happens, take the opportunity to talk to them about the Russian-Ukraine war.
If they ask you, be ready to explain a few ideas. I will share some now. If they talk between themselves or drop a comment, ask them: Do you want to talk about it? I can imagine it’s a bit confusing. Some will say yes, others will say no. Even if they don’t want to talk (or maybe precisely because they don’t want to talk) keep an eye on them.
A few simple tips to help you have the conversation about the Russian- Ukraine war:
● Manage your feelings and state of mind. It is important to acknowledge our own feelings, and equally to understand how they can affect others. Our children will need reassurance and trust. For this it is important we are calm and focused. It is not about hiding our feelings or lying about them, but managing them in an adult manner. Equally, it is not about pretending to know everything, but to share what we know with them in a calm way.
● Allow time. Don’t rush the conversation. Maybe they only want a simple answer, but make sure you have the time in case the chat evolves. If you stop it half way, they might think you are hiding something and that creates uncertainty. If they want a simple answer, make sure it is one they can understand and trust :
○ Are we in danger? I believe we are perfectly safe. The country has all the defences it needs and the friends it needs to keep us safe.
○ Is this WWIII? No it is not. It is a very sad situation between two countries.
● Aim to be factual about the Russian-Ukraine war. and help them be clear on their sources. As much as their friend’s dad might know somebody who knows, or they watched it in different TikTok videos (“everybody is saying…”) it is important to explain how we have to be cautious with the information we receive, contrast and use our common sense. It is critical to help them separate between: facts, rumours, possibilities and plain fake news. You can even use pen and paper and put different ideas in different boxes.
● Help them get perspective. This is not denying the huge tragedy happening, but helping them manage their feelings. They might be hearing about war in Europe, help them put distance into context, relate it to some trip you might have made.
○ For example: do you remember when we drove to Bristol to see grandpa and grandma, was it long? Well, this situation is happening 150 times further away. And that is for cars. Imagine slow trucks. You can bring out a map and trace those two journeys.
● Relate the Russian-Ukraine war to something they can understand. I have drafted this idea for younger kids and with a few tweaks you can adapt it to teenagers:
● Imagine that some people you know are being bullied by others. You want to help, but there is a big gap between them and you, maybe a river. What can you do? (It’s great if they come with some ideas of their own). You could tell the bullies to go away, you could send something for your friends to defend themselves, you could definitely show them that you are there with them. Those friends are not having a good time, but our support can help them overcome it or make them feel better.
● Be ready to address some worst case scenarios. They might ask, what if they still invade other countries? What if they use the nuclear bombs? What if their planes bomb where we live? In this case you might want to use some visual aids (with younger children) like wooden blocks or toys of different sizes and maps (with older ones). This is how I would go about it.
● Most countries are like kids, they have friends and people they don’t get along with so well. In this case, we have one country who is being nasty to another (one toy against another toy or mark the counties in the map). Next, we have a bunch of other countries that are friends and have vowed to defend each other (loads of toys on that side or mark all the NATO/EU countries, be careful to use some measure that is not only the size of the county as in their mind geographical size might equal strength). All this group of friends are ready to defend themselves and anybody else. Do you think this single toy will attack all these toys? And what would happen if he was to do it?
And I could carry on with ideas, but I hope these few points give you a good way to start.
What else can you do to help them manage their feeling about the Russian-Ukraine war?
It is important to understand that nothing I can say or do will have a permanent or sudden effect in their worries. It might help and alleviate but we can’t see them as magic recipes.
The usual approaches to managing feelings complement our toolbox. Minimise exposure to news in the house. Help them express their feelings by drawing or whatever activity suits them, give them a combination of activities (sport, etc) but also ensure they have free time and, most importantly, time with you. Aim to act as normal as possible in your daily life, be careful with those throwaway comments (i.e. what else can go wrong in this world?). Also, if this works for you, talk to them about contributing to donations or support in some way. Do not feel this has to be done exclusively towards the war in Ukraine only, it can be useful to guide their helpfulness towards any activity they can see contribute to a greater good and provides them with a sense of community.
Lastly, let them know that people will be talking and it’s important they share with you whatever they hear as sometimes those comments (remember the point about rumours and fake news) can be hurtful.
If you go back two years, to the start of the pandemic, it will give you an idea of what we might expect here.
If the conflict is resolved speedily (I am at pains to consider what that might mean), it is likely there will be some reverberations but the media will calm down and with that the panic too.
If the conflict continues (not sure if that is a much better option, to be honest), it’s critical to continue the conversation, ensuring they have an open communication with you, they can reframe what they feel and put it into perspective.
As mentioned above, it is in the last few months that we are seeing the real impact in mental health of the pandemic in children. If your child is affected by this situation, it might not be immediately obvious. Keep an eye on them and if you have any reason for concern, please do address it.