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How do you speak to children about the Ukraine invasion?

Bloodshed in Ukraine and headlines about the threat posed by nuclear weapons have been dominating the news for days.

Inevitably, this leads to questions from curious and sometimes anxious children – questions which many adults would struggle to give balanced and nuanced answers to.

With sizeable Russian and Ukrainian populations in the UK, sometimes mixing in the same school playgrounds, children can take away half-understood ideas about the invasion based on misheard information.

So, how should parents and teachers talk to young people about the conflict?

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Recent front pages have been dominated by the crisis

Even the youngest children can pick up some things

First, adults should understand that even very young children can pick up the tone, if not the detail, when adults are concerned about world events.

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Dr Jane Gilmour, consultant clinical psychologist and course director for a child development masters course, said: “The information that happens around children is as important as what is said to them, they will pick things up from snippets of news or from the school gates.

“What adults can do is give them a framework to understand that and say to them, ‘let’s figure out what that means’.”

Olivia Platman, head of programmes at The Economist Educational Foundation, said: “There are underlying themes that we can engage even young children with. Power, scarcity, justice, and democracy are ideas where we can draw analogies with simple stories or even fairy tales.”

Learn the lessons of COVID

She also cautioned against ignoring the impact world events may be having.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s how porous kids are and how much they soak up,” she said. “That showed us we really need to talk to them. The less we do this, the more we heighten their fears.”

Dr Gilmour added that parents shouldn’t necessarily switch off the news when children come into the room – that may heighten a child’s sense that something may be wrong.

If a young person were to see an inappropriate image, “then you should turn it off, and it’s important to talk about it and make it your business to translate and make sense of it”.

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‘You’re afraid!’ Crying Ukrainian tells PM

What do children want to know?

Nicky Cox is editor of children’s newspaper First News and CEO of Fresh Start Media, which makes FYI – a current affairs show for kids – for Sky News and Sky Kids.

The newspaper, which has a six-page special on Ukraine out on Friday, goes into what bodies like NATO are and the history of the Cold War.

First news front page
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First News’ issue this week will be free to download

“We also have maps showing how far Ukraine is from the UK,” she said.

“We get all sorts of questions from our readers like ‘will Russia invade the UK?’ and ‘will my dad have to fight?’, things which many adults may not have considered.”

Dr Gilmour said: “Don’t assume you know what they want to know. There may be questions like ‘will my school close?’ and ‘what are sanctions?’. Ask a child what it is they want to know.”

Key developments in the Ukraine crisis:

‘Prove you are with us’: Ukraine leader’s emotional speech
Footage captures huge explosion after Russian strike
More than 200,000 Ukrainians could join family in UK
Crying Ukrainian challenges Boris Johnson over response

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Meet the civilians preparing to ‘stop Putin’

What message should we be trying to get across?

All the experts agree that trying to lie about the conflict is a bad idea. Being caught out risks harming a child’s sense of trust in the adults who care for them.

But “you don’t have to have an answer for everything”, Ms Platman said.

“Questions from children can be the start of a joint quest for information,” she added.

What’s a good news source for kids?

News sites should be carefully considered for appropriateness and bias, with the experts recommending First News and Newsround as good places to start.

Nicky Cox said: “We never shy away from the truth, and we are always factual, but we are careful about our language. We would never throw around terms such as ‘nuclear war’ quite as casually as some in the media.

“We always tell the truth, but we sometimes sanitise the way we report news stories, especially in terms of our imagery. We aim to be PG, not X-rated.

“We look for positive angles when the news is bad – for instance with Ukraine, we will emphasise the world pulling together and talk about the many people who are trying to help.”

Olivia Platman also highlights advice from The Philosophy Man, which provides philosophical teaching and resources for schools.

In a recent update, the training provider wrote about concentrating attention on things you can control, like friendships for younger children and not allowing older children to watch too much news.

Volunteers at the Klub Orla Bialego (White Eagle Club) in Balham, south London, sort through donations made by members of the public to be sent overseas as aid to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. Picture date: Sunday February 27, 2022.
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Volunteers at the Klub Orla Bialego (White Eagle Club) in Balham, south London, sort through donations

What about children who become very anxious?

Dr Gilmour says actions and tone are key in reacting to an anxious child.

“Parents should telegraph calm with their phraseology and tone of voice,” she says.

“If they appear calm, the world feels like a calm place.”

She says it’s good practice for general wellbeing to keep a written or audio record of worries that both child and parent can refer back to and sort through.

This Thursday, an FYI ‘I don’t get it’ video explainer on Ukraine will be available on Sky Kids and online. First News is also making its Ukraine special edition newspaper free to download this week.

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