What’s happening in Ukraine is weighing heavily on many of us now. The news and the disturbing images are nearly impossible to ignore. It’s upsetting enough for adults, but it can hit children particularly hard.Jaren Doby, a licensed clinical social worker with Novant Health Psychiatric Associates - Randolph in Charlotte, talked to reporters recently about how to talk to children about a most troubling topic – war. Here are some of his answers that may help parents navigate this situation at home.
When they hear about these big, complex, unsettling issues, what kind of anxieties do children display?
Kids today have access to social media, cell phones, tablets … they can easily access this information. So, it's not surprising, of course, that they're very aware of and impacted by the news of the day.
Their anxiety could show up in a number of ways – withdrawing, acting out, irritability, difficulty sleeping, change in appetite.
What are some talking points in this kind of situation?
Take the child’s lead. It’s important to ask our children first: “What have you heard or seen?” You may be surprised by how much they’re aware of. Or they may know just a little, and that will help you limit your conversation to just their concerns. Before offering your input or guidance, find out what they know. Ask if they have any specific questions.
With social media, it seems like everything's out there. How should parents balance social media right now between wanting their (older) kids to have that information but not wanting them to have too much?
It is important to monitor, to the best of your ability, what kind of information your children are consuming. It isn’t easy given that information is so easily accessible. It’s literally in the palm of our hands. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Children can’t and shouldn’t have to sort out these issues on their own.
Reassure them, as best you can, that they are safe. But be honest, too. It’s OK to say there’s a lot of uncertainty now, and no one knows how this is going to progress.
Is there a certain age that might be too young to be having these conversations?I think there is a way to gauge how to communicate and what to communicate to children of various ages. This is such a very serious topic; we're talking about innocent people losing their lives.
See a doctor within a day.
Let the child express their feelings and give you cues about how much they know and how much they’re ready to hear. Asking your child to tell you what they’ve heard is a good place to start.
With children still in the early elementary school years, it might just be acknowledging something is happening between Ukraine and Russia.
And what are some signs that we should look out for that our kids might be scared about what's going on, but they don't want to talk about it?
If you notice behavioral changes, don’t be afraid to ask about those. Pay attention to any kind of increased anxiety, worry or any communicated inability to be able to control worry. Also be mindful of changes in concentration, sleep disturbance, appetite, restlessness, inability to relax.
There will be parents who deliberately keep their children away from televisions because they don't want to instill fear in them. Is there any danger in shielding children from what's happening in the world?
What is acceptable in one household may be unacceptable in another. If you want to be able to talk about these really tough topics openly as a family, then set the stage for that. Let kids know it’s OK to ask you questions and that it’s normal to feel anxiety.
What are some ways we can focus on kindness at this time with our kids? I know video games are a big thing with a lot of kids, but many of those are violent. Are there other ways we can distract them?
Choosing to limit your child’s exposure to violent video games is a good start. If you're looking for positive distractions, go for things that naturally work well for that child. What I've been learning over the course of my career, and being a parent myself, is that children are very much aware of how they feel and what works best to soothe them. And they will often honestly tell you what helps them feel better, what activities they feel like engaging in. So, check the pulse of your children. Now is a good time to engage as a family.
Kids often read their parents’ emotions,” Doby said. “If a child is noticing a parent is watching the news, for example, and reacting with apprehension, the child will feel that fear, too. Not just children, but people in general are usually sponges. Parents need to be aware that kids take their emotional cues from you.
I'm not suggesting parents, family members or mentors mask their emotions. But if these things do come up, just be able to recognize that there's always someone watching, and be willing to have that conversation to the degree it’s appropriate for the child.
COVID-19 has taken a mental toll on kids. Now we have this invasion. What would you tell kids if you're speaking directly to them?
I would say that what it is happening is sad and unfortunate and also very far away. I would open the door for a conversation. Let the child know you’re available – and that other adults, are too. Teachers, pastors, coaches, mentors – all are available.
I would add that we’re all going through this together, we're all watching this together, but no one should have to suffer alone.
Anything else you want to share?
I want to double down on the fact that we're all in this together. This is a very tough topic. We're all watching this happen together to innocent people. Please lock arms, stick close to your loved ones and make sure your kids understand that we're nothing without each other. And that regardless of what’s happening, we can get through this together.