The news, stories and images broadcast by the media and the web of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could arouse feelings of worry, anxiety, stress and fear in children and adolescents.
In this delicate historical moment, the role of parents is very important to prevent children and adolescents from feeling disoriented and afraid, putting their psycho-physical well-being at risk.
In this regard, the experts of Save the Children, the international organization that has been operating in Ukraine since 2014 providing essential humanitarian aid to children and their families, have compiled a 5-point handbook that parents and caregivers can use with children to address the delicate conversation about war.
Vademecum Save the Children
1. Make time to listen to your child when he wants to talk
Give the children space to tell you what they know, how they are feeling, and to ask you questions. They may have a completely different picture of the situation than you do. Take the time to hear what they think and what they have seen or heard.
2. Adapt the conversation to the child
Be aware of the age of the boy or girl as you approach the conversation with him / her. Young children may not understand what conflict or war means and may need an age-appropriate explanation. Be careful not to over-explain the situation or go into too much detail as this may cause them to grow unnecessary anxiety. Younger children could be satisfied with just the explanation that countries sometimes fight with each other. Older children are more likely to know what war means, but they can still get support from talking to you about the situation. Generally, older children are more concerned about war talk because they tend to understand its dangers better than younger children.
3. Value their feelings
It is important that children feel supported in the conversation. They shouldn't feel judged and need to feel that their concerns are being considered. If children are given the opportunity to have an open and honest conversation about things that upset them, they can feel relieved and more confident.
4. Reassure them that adults all over the world are working hard to solve this problem.
Remind the children that it is not their job to solve this problem. They shouldn't feel guilty about continuing to play, meeting their friends, or doing things that make them happy. Keep calm as you approach the conversation. Children often copy the feelings of their caregivers - if you are uncomfortable with the situation, chances are your daughter will be uncomfortable too.
5. Offer them a practical way to help them.
Support children who want to help out. Children who have the opportunity to help those affected by conflict can feel part of the solution. Children can create fundraisers, send letters to local decision makers, or create drawings calling for peace.
Create moments in which the news is analyzed together: above all, leave room for their questions.
Suggest books to read on the theme of war and peace: thematic readings can help us to tackle delicate issues especially with the little ones, promoting a reflection on the contribution that each of us can offer to promote peace.
Give space to the testimonies of peers: personal stories always have a great impact on adults as well as on children and can also serve to better understand the situation, taking advantage of empathy and identification. Autobiographical narration can be very useful not only for understanding the conditions of children in war, but also for knowing their dreams and hopes.
Use a story or an illustrated book: to talk about such a delicate subject to children, it can be of great help to start from a story designed and created just for them. And, why not, also use a story written by the children themselves.
The Save the Children vademecum is a valid support tool for parents and caregivers.
We explored the subject with the doctor Sabrina Suma, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Dubai.
Is it okay to tell the children about war?
I would say more than fair it is necessary. The conflict in Ukraine that has recently upset international equilibrium has suddenly and forcefully entered the daily life of adults and children.
Pretending nothing is practically impossible. News often arrives raw and fast in the eyes of children and technology does not discount, the images flow free and fast without filters on the web.
Let's not forget that during the pandemic the use of online platforms has massively entered the daily lives of children and young people and strong and traumatizing images can break into their lives at any moment. Not taking this into account would be a big mistake.
In your opinion, what is the most suitable way to approach the subject with children?
The right way is through listening. I'll explain. We often look for the right words or the best time to say difficult things, actually before talking to children it is important to understand what they need.
Do the children want to know what actually happens? Do they want to know if it is right or normal to be afraid? Do they want to know if what worries them will end? Or do they want to know if the way they are feeling is normal?
Each child needs to be reassured in a different way, based on age, character, personality. For example, in younger children it is more difficult to distinguish the real from the imaginary.
So it is important to deal with the topic only if they ask us precise and direct questions, to which it is good to answer in turn with concrete and simplified examples on what a conflict means, perhaps giving the example of a fight.
Also, it is critically important to reassure them that we are there to protect them and that this bad time will end.
In older children, aged 8 and up, on the other hand, there is a different need to know and to be reassured. There is a desire made up of more details, the narration of facts and the search for meaning. For example, why there is war and what will happen.
There are children who want to talk and others who are more shy and who tend to internalize.
Everyone, at this moment, needs to be reassured and to be welcomed with a long hug.
How to approach adolescents?
With teenagers it's a bit more difficult. Today's images show photos of boys and children holding a rifle while holding a lollipop in their mouth, images that are hard to forget.
They, for example, identify themselves in a different way. While adolescents are preparing to be adults, it is also true that they find themselves fragile and disoriented in the face of the possibility of an armed conflict which, under certain circumstances, could even see them as protagonists.
The war they usually experience virtually, in a game context such as Fortnite, Call of Duty or Black Ops; or in a school context such as between school desks. In this case it becomes something tangible, possible and real.
On the one hand, if young people are disoriented they tend to rebellion, taking a political position where the tendency to action and anger prevails; on the other hand, they are lost in fear of an uncertain and not very reassuring future, in an attempt to protect themselves from a reality that they cannot tolerate.
The most useful approach with teenagers it can be talking and discussing, without however expressing fruitless and sterile political positions.
It is more important to try to deepen the facts by being welcoming and trying to remind them that some phases of our life can be difficult or have little sense, but we must have faith and patience that they will pass and that they will somehow resolve themselves.
After all, we can only do what we are given to do. Let us also remember that in boys nothing is more effective than sport, the group and the routine to overcome moments of great stress.
What are the tools that allow parents to explain the war to children and adolescents without putting their psycho-physical well-being at risk?
Active listening, emotional support and psychological support. These are the most important tools.
We need to listen before taking initiatives, filter messages based on age, welcome feelings of anxiety and inadequacy without too much fear, remind the little ones, for example, that it is not a problem that they can solve but that someone is already working on it.
Accept discordant feelings, use congruent non-verbal language, and remember that nothing is more reassuring than a hug.
Furthermore, all those activities that give the feeling of not being passive spectators that can have a cathartic effect on disabling emotions can be useful.
For example, taking part in a fundraiser, creating peace designs, writing letters to send through charities.
Promote and support initiatives involving the school environment where possible.
When patient should contact a specialist?
When the child has exaggerated reactions despite being in safety and in a situation without any imminent danger. For example, when he tells us he doesn't want to go out because he's afraid something might happen.
When he has recurring nightmares or if he doesn't want to go to school because he thinks war could come at any moment.
Have there been any families in this period who have come to you for advice?
No. In reality, everything is happening in an atmosphere of surprise incredulity, so at the moment the dissociative component wins with which we “freeze” feelings and experiences of fear and anguish, in an attempt to control them. I believe the effects will be seen in a while.
After all that’s been discussed, what is your message?
My message is the same one I wrote on a note some time ago, when the studio where I work decided to give toys to the children of Beirut, who, after the terrible explosion that took place at the port in August 2020, did not want to return. in the classroom.
The card reads: "Sometimes you have to have courage and if we don't find it we have to breathe hard and look for it in a hug."
We do not stay and we do not leave anyone alone in this very important moment.
We teach and remind our children that the most powerful weapons humans have always remain respect and love.