Many of us have difficulty processing and explaining war or conflict, at home and abroad—especially to children. As parents and caregivers, we want to support our children and be honest with them while navigating difficult subjects. Here are some basic tips adults can use when talking to children about war and conflict.

How do you explain war to kids?

Before talking with kids, examine and understand your own feelings–anxiety, anger, uncertainty. How you react to events informs how your child reacts. Your child will see how you handle it, and how you come across will strongly impact how your child processes the world and traumatic events around them. It’s not only what you say but how you say it. Speaking with a therapist or a trusted friend can help you understand your feelings and work through processing them.

Encourage your child to ask questions and share their concerns. Before you process with your child, hear what it is they understand and learn what they want to know. It can be helpful to repeat their questions to make sure that you really understand what they're asking and can best address their concerns.

Consider how much and what kind of information you talk about

Take your child’s developmental level into consideration when speaking to them – how much information can they process and what’s the right way to pitch it? Older children and adolescents can generally process difficult subjects in more concrete ways than younger children.

Make sure you know your facts, too. Kids may need help understanding historical background information and confusing words that come up on social media. Be prepared to research and help them process if you don’t know the answers immediately.

Reassure your child that they are safe. Younger kids will typically require more assurance. Teens will usually benefit from facts and time to process.

If you watch TV, do it together. Limit your child’s exposure to violence and traumatic events, especially if they have access to social media. For older kids, limit screen time and direct them to trustworthy sources of information, helping them to become critical consumers of media.

Keep your routine

As much as possible, keep your family’s schedule and routine. We all draw comfort from the usual in unusual times. Stay close to friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, and other people in your life who provide strength and support. Show your child the importance of in-person connections, as well as social media and connecting online.

If your child gets anxious about the events

If you notice signs that your child is regressing in stressful times, this could be normal. Sleeping with parents, not wanting to do schoolwork, clinging to you or to comfort toys, bedwetting, changes in appetite or significant mood swings can all be quite normal for a few weeks. If you notice a significant decline in functioning or persistent regression, contact your pediatrician or a local mental health center who can help to provide additional support in navigating a difficult time. In Rhode Island, you can call Kids' Link RI at any time to connect with a pediatric mental health clinician for support.

The children most likely to be affected by these events are those with additional behavioral or mental health needs, and kids who have had prior traumatic events in their lives. Getting additional support quickly can be even more important for families in this situation. Bradley Hospital's Partial Hospital Programs are here to help children of all ages.

For more information on talking to children about difficult subjects, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Margaret R. Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD

Dr. Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski is the director of clinical innovation at Bradley Hospital. She has more than 35 years of experience in supervisory and administrative positions as well as extensive experience with trauma patients and managing trauma-related service environments.