It’s natural for parents and carers to want to protect their children from distressing and upsetting images of conflict.
But in reality, whether parents talk about the conflict or not, young people will likely be exposed to images and videos of what’s unfolding online or on social media, or hear about it from peers at school.
Family psychotherapist, Fiona Yassin, often says parents and carers think the right way to deal with conversations about conflict and distressing events is to shut them down, “But being protective of children doesn’t mean hiding them from information.” “It’s likely children will hear different opinions, viewpoints and versions of what’s happening from classmates at school, and it’s our role as parents to help guide them with the facts in an age-appropriate way. Shutting down conversations with children may exacerbate their anxiety about the conflict and lead them to withdraw.”
Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, has shared advice for parents and carers on how to speak to young people about the conflict.
Use age appropriate language
Children aren’t usually equipped with the same level of understanding about conflict as adults – particularly with regard to the history and backstory – so when they hear distressing information or see graphic images, it can hit them really hard at the moment.
When a child doesn’t understand something, they tend to fill in the gaps themselves, which can lead to building an inaccurate narrative of events and confusion. So as parents, carers and teachers, it’s really important we take care of the information children are exposed to and use appropriate words to describe what’s happening in a way they can understand.
It’s essential to keep your language as neutral as possible – be really careful about using words like ‟ terrorist” or ‟ attacker”. Stick with the facts and stay in a neutral information zone.
Show your child how far away they are from the conflict
The geographical location of the conflict won’t necessarily file with children correctly. If a child hears that people are being kidnapped or murdered, particularly children or parents, it may bring a lot of fear and anxiety to a child, and lead them to think the same thing could happen in their own home.
Showing your child the proximity of the conflict will enable them to file this information correctly. Use a world globe or a map to show them where the conflict is happening and where you live in relation to that.
By doing this, we are not dismissing or pushing away what’s happening, instead we’re putting a protective layer of cotton wool around our children. Our job as parents is to make sure that our child can file the information – as distressing as it is – correctly.
Ensure your child looks at reliable and trustworthy news sources
Acknowledge that information about the conflict may be coming to you or your child differently, depending on your cultural or religious viewpoint. This is also an important time to remember that the headlines and images you or your child see may take a different slant depending on the source of the news.
If your child has a device which they use without supervision, as parents we have a responsibility to ensure they are looking at reliable and trustworthy news sources.
Answer questions with facts
Your child may want to ask questions about the current conflict depending on what they’ve already been taught at school, or based on their own lived–experience. Do not brush off big fears, answer questions using facts, do not give them alarming information, and try not to be reactionary and emotive.
If you give your child a clear understanding of the conflict, it’s likely they will share this clear understanding with their peers. This is an incredibly complex conflict, and you do not have to have all the answers. Be honest with your child if you do not know something, and agree to come back to them when you’ve educated yourself.
If your child does want to read an article or watch a news feature about the conflict, ensure you know exactly what they’ll be reading and seeing first. It’s important you check it’s age–appropriate content for your child.
Ensure your child has a safe space to talk
Take notice if you sense your child has become anxious or upset – you may see this through tears, hair twirling, pacing, waking–up at night, or being clingier than usual. Children with an anxiety–prone disposition will be more susceptible to distressing words and imagery than others. It may be helpful to put an extra layer of protection around your child by making the school aware of what’s going on.
If you have family or friends in any of the areas that are affected by conflict and the anxiety or distress around this is impacting your child, take professional advice. You could arrange a session with the school counsellor, a pastoral lead or a mental health professional, which would give them a safe space to talk through their thoughts and feelings.