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How Do You Talk to Children About War?

Duke mental health experts offer tips for tough conversations about Ukraine.

A young girl ties blue and yellow ribbons on a tree to show support for Ukrainians during the Russian invasion.
People of all ages in the Duke community are looking for ways to understand world events and support Ukraine. (Amanda Solliday / University Communications)

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Robin Gurwitch and other mental health practitioners knew they needed to help others begin to navigate the conflict.

“Even during this relatively short period, the war is already impacting adults here in the United States in a very real way,” says Gurwitch, a Duke University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor and a senior advisor to the terrorism and disaster program of the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

The center coordinates members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network – which consists of 140 sites across the country.  

The group quickly began pulling information together for “Talking to Children About War,” a resource for mental health experts and families. They convened on the phone and gathered details about traumatic consequences to children during disasters, reviewed existing materials and updated these to address the current war.

Children in the United States may have concerns about relatives in Ukraine and Russia or family members in the military, and the violence and displacement might find a way into everyday conversations.

“It’s part of the daily discussions, and it’s all over social media and the news. Because of that saturation, parents are really trying to help children navigate discussions, as well,” Gurwitch says.Robin Gurwitch, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University

Families from Ukraine fleeing the war are already arriving in the community. In anticipation of Ukrainian refugee resettlement, the network has already begun to translate existing mental health resources into languages more accessible for these populations, as they have done in the past for other international conflicts, says Lisa Amaya-Jackson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke and the co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. The network has translated materials related to this war and refugee issues into Ukrainian, Russian and other languages.

Over the past two weeks, Tracy Henderson Bethel, project planner for the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, has been mobilizing groups of network members to respond in real-time within their communities across the country. 

Lisa Amaya-Jackson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke “While the Ukraine/Russia conflict is relatively new, our centers are serving children and families that immigrated before this conflict," Henderson Bethel says.  

Throughout this difficult time, children may be confused and may hear misinformation.

“As kids check in with caregivers, and caregivers check in with their children, we wanted to make sure that caregivers have ideas of how to talk to their children in a way they can understand and how to best support them,” Gurwitch says.

If you’re planning to discuss the war with a child, here are some tips Gurwitch offers:

  • Ask what they are hearing. Ask, “What have you heard about the war in Ukraine?” or “What are friends saying about the war?” By starting this way, Gurwitch says, you get to hear what they understand. Clear up any misinformation or misunderstandings they have, and make sure the child knows they are safe.
  • Check in on how they feel. Validate their feelings and don’t try to talk them out of any certain emotions. That doesn't work for adults or children, Gurwitch says. Parents should support the child’s feelings to help them cope and eventually feel better.
  • Monitor media exposure, including social media. Very young children should not be watching this at all, Gurwitch advises. As children get older, if they're watching news about the war, watch it with them. Then turn it off and talk about it. Check in about what they're finding on social media, too. Find out what's being discussed and maintain an ongoing conversation about what the child reads and hears. Also make sure the entire family is taking breaks from the coverage.
  • Look for signs of stress. Recognize that when children are stressed, they have big feelings, Gurwitch says, including worry, anxiety, anger, and confusion. They may be moody or irritable and may have problems with attention and focus, as well as sleep disruptions. This added stress can also affect performance at school. Parents should provide a little extra patience, a little extra help and little extra love and attention, Gurwitch says.
  • Get involved. We feel better when we help others, Gurwitch says. Some of her suggestions for activities to do together as a family: write a letter to a service member; donate food or gently used toys and clothes to families in need; or make a family donation to a relief organization.

The UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).