“I Want To Tell You About Something Serious And Sad”: Talking To Kids About War
Dr. Becky Kennedy helps us navigate the tough questions and feelings kids have when talk of war is everywhere.
War is a constant presence in the world. But it feels much bigger these days with the 18-month war in Ukraine and the recent Israel-Palestine conflict. These devastating conflicts are ever-present on social media, which pushes a constant influx of real-time coverage, incendiary opinions, misinformation, graphic imagery directly into user’s feeds.
Children are among those users. And even if they’re not old enough to be on such apps, kids may hear about events from their friends, overhear adult conversations, stumble onto websites covering war in detail, or accidentally see explicit coverage on an electronic device. It’s up to parents to answer their questions and help them through what they may be experiencing. And that’s not an easy task.
To be clear, exposure to war coverage is not comparable to the trauma inflicted on kids who live in war zones or whose family members actively fight in war. But helping kids process war from afar is still a challenge that can leave many feeling incapacitated because, quite frankly, even adults are overwhelmed by the vividness and sheer volume of war content circulating.
As much as parents might want to shield their kids from such disturbing subject matter, that ship has sailed in our always-connected age. Instead, Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and author of the New York Times best-selling Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, encourages parents to be proactive in talking to their kids about issues that may, in theory, seem too mature for them.
“In general, it’s best when kids hear sensitive information from us, their parents — as the information is shared in the context of a safe, loving relationship,” she says. “Clear, direct, honest information shared while connected to a loving, trusted adult is what helps children understand the world around them.”
Fatherly spoke to Dr. Becky for guidance around these difficult conversations and what to do when you’re understandably at a loss for words.
War is all around us. How proactive should parents be in discussing war with kids in light of the fact that they may see things about it on social media or, at the very least, are more likely to hear about war from friends?
You know your kid and their environment best. So if you think your kids may hear about this at school from peers, online, or from the news on TV, or you generally make a habit in your family about talking to your kids in advance, then bringing it up proactively makes sense.
To start a proactive conversation with your kids, I would share words along the lines of: “I want to tell you about something really serious and sad that is happening. I want to tell you about this so that if you hear about it at school or from friends, you will know what they are talking about. This might have us feeling a lot of different things – whatever you’re feeling is okay because I’m here with you.”
If you don’t bring it up proactively, be on the lookout for signs your child has heard about it — which may look like they're asking more questions, feeling unsettled, or being more curious than usual about what you’re reading on your phone.
“If they’re overwhelmed, validate that their feelings make sense, tell them you are there for them, and think about how to manage the media consumption around you.”
If a parent knows that their child has heard or seen vivid details of war, what’s their best approach?
I’d affirm that these details are, in fact, scary and awful. Assure your child of your presence, and let them know you are there for them. This might sound like, “Wow, you saw that. That is just awful to see. I know. I’m right here with you, sweetie. Your reactions and feelings and questions matter — and I’m here for you with all of them.”
And if they’re overwhelmed, validate that their feelings make sense, tell them you are there for them, and think about how to manage the media consumption around you so they don’t get any more flooded with news or details they cannot process.
You might say, “It makes sense you’re overwhelmed because what’s happening is overwhelming. One of the things I can do is help you figure out what to read or see and what is important not to read or see right now - none of us can manage overwhelming feelings if we continue to be flooded by more overwhelming feelings.”
Another strategy is to help your child recognize their feelings rather than try to fight them. So replace “Don’t think about it!” with “When I feel overwhelmed with overwhelming feelings, I say hi to them — like ‘Hi scary thoughts and feelings’ — because this helps me remember that the feelings are a part of me, not all of me.”
Another strategy is to help your child recognize their feelings rather than try to fight them. Replace “Don’t think about it!” with “When I feel overwhelmed with overwhelming feelings, I say hi to them...”
After the initial conversation, what are some ways to check in with kids and gauge how they're processing things without unnecessarily digging up big feelings that the child has resolved?
I’d say: “Hey. I’m thinking about everything going on in Israel and Gaza and I wanted to check in. There’s nothing you can say or share or ask that is wrong or bad or too much for me. How are you doing?” And it’s okay to tell them you don’t have all of the answers. Our kids need our presence more than our answers right now.
How can we teach kids to advocate for themselves when their friends talk about war and don't feel comfortable with the conversation?
The first step is teaching them how to talk to themselves in these moments because only after kids ground themselves can they ever speak up to others. I’d practice a mantra with your kids. Something like, “I’m allowed to feel uncomfortable and I don’t have to be part of this.”
Once your children know how to ground themselves in this way, you may share and even role-play a script to friends that sounds like, “I don’t want to talk about this right now, so I’m going to leave this conversation.” Role play by first practicing the mantra, then taking a deep breath, and then practicing sharing these words with others.