Talking to Children About War and Conflict

Many are struggling with feelings they don’t know how to express

Linda Mei Lin Koh
Talking to Children About War and Conflict

During the past two years both adults and children greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many experienced anxiety, fear, isolation, and depression.

Now with the full-blown conflict in Ukraine, children again are facing more anxiety, fear, sadness, or even anger. Many children have watched the news on television or overheard adult conversations. They worry about the possibility of another world war. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that their mental health is being affected. 

Children look to their parents for safety and security in times of crisis. It’s important to speak with them directly rather than allowing a television newscaster to do the talking. 

Help children understand the level of threat to them, their friends, and family.

Young children may not really understand everything about war or conflict, or have the vocabulary to express their concerns, but they sense enough to become anxious and worried. What can parents, teachers, or guardians do to ease the anxiety and concerns of children? Here are a few suggestions from those who have worked with children in times of crisis:

1. Spend time with them. Do this every day, even if only for a few minutes. Discover what they know about the current situation and how they might be feeling. Help children to identify their emotions as these are often difficult for them to articulate. Validate their feelings. Don’t dismiss them by saying, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.” Some children may be unaware of the headlines, but others may worry in silence.  It’s important to find a comfortable time to talk as a family.  

2. Listen to their worries. Parents need to listen attentively to children’s concerns. Provide answers to their questions, making sure your responses are age-appropriate. Don’t minimize their concerns. If asked “Are we going to die?” or “Are we going to have World War III?” reassure them, explaining why you don’t believe this to be true. Share Bible promises with them, such as Isaiah 41:10: “So don’t worry, because I am with you. Don’t be afraid, because I am your God. I will make you strong and will help you. I will support you with my right hand that saves you.”*

Doing something good, no matter how small, can bring comfort to children.

Don’t check with them only once:  engage in multiple conversations about their concerns. This helps them to understand that their parents, teachers, or guardians are open to discuss conflict situations. Correct their misunderstandings by giving accurate information. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, let your children know that, and suggest that they join you in finding the answers together.

3. Ensure they feel supported and safe. Help children understand the level of threat to them, their friends, and family. Explain that this particular conflict is happening in Ukraine. Help them locate Ukraine on a map, explaining that it’s a different country. Then show them on the same map where they live. Reassure them that many countries are working hard to stop the conflict and bring peace. Explain that some countries are welcoming the refugee families and providing shelter, food, and medical help. Parents especially need to speak calmly. Watch your facial expressions, so as not to confuse your children.  When we tell our children that they are safe, our body language must match our words. 

4. Encourage compassion and not stigma. Avoid labeling the “bad” or “evil” people. Children may have heard adults, friends, or newscasters speak badly about one or more national leaders. Parents shouldn’t join in such labeling. Instead, encourage children to pray for political leaders that they will find peaceful solutions to the conflict. Pray also for the families forced to flee their homes. 

Avoid labeling the “bad” or “evil” people.

Doing something good, no matter how small, can bring comfort to children. Find ways to involve children in helping those in countries experiencing conflict. Some ideas might include donating their allowance or savings to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which provides food and clothes to refugee children. Children can express their feelings by writing poems on peace. They can also pray for the children in Ukraine and Russia. By helping refugees in times of crisis, children develop empathy for others. 

5. Limit the flood of news. Be careful to reduce the exposure your children have to television news that includes media showing the results of bombings or the killing of innocent people. Parents should switch off the television for younger children. With older children, this may provide parents the opportunity to discuss the time spent watching news as well as what sources they should trust. Not everything on the Internet or television is accurate. Explain that the conflict in Ukraine is in the news because the world cares about what is happening to that country, but that media often concentrate their reports on the bad things or on things where there is disagreement. There is good news happening every day. Help children identify the good news around them that fosters a more positive outlook.  

Sometimes it’s better for families to turn away from television and other media and do fun things together, such as playing board games, baking cookies, or talking about how we can help those in these conflict countries. 

6. Partner with parents. Talk to other parents and share the discussions you have had with your children about the Ukraine conflict. Exchange ideas with them and learn tips from them about how you might speak with your children. 

We live in a world of uncertainty. It’s important that parents, teachers, and guardians turn their attention toward their children’s mental health. This is not a time for silence. 

Keep listening! Keep talking! Keep encouraging! Keep supporting!

*Scriptures credited to ICB are quoted from the International Children’s Bible, copyright © 1986, 1988, 2008, 2015 by Tommy Nelson. Used by permission.

Linda Mei Lin Koh is the Children’s Ministries director for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

“We’re delighted that you have chosen another Adventist Review Premium article, available to those who subscribe to online or print editions of this award-winning magazine. A limited number of Premium articles may be accessed by non-subscribers. Premium articles are authored by major voices in the Adventist community, and represent a range of responsible opinion on the major topics under discussion across this movement. The opinions and perspectives expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the positions of the Adventist Review or its editorial team.”

Linda Mei Lin Koh