As the war in Ukraine continues, parents around the world are grappling with how to help their children process the crisis. If you’re unsure of how you should talk to your children about it, you are not alone.
Many kids are already being exposed to information about the crisis — at school, in conversation with friends, and through social media. Rapidly multiplying TikTok videos of wartime scenes have birthed a new genre known as WarTok. “I have already heard teens on social media sharing jokes about gearing up to be drafted for World War III,” said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician.
No matter what age our kids are, as parents, we can help them feel safer, less fearful, and more appropriately informed about the conflict, even if we ourselves are struggling to understand.
Although we may feel helpless, we can take steps to support our children in three key ways: connecting with them and validating their feelings, helping them recharge from the stressful news and create boundaries with technology, and engaging in meaningful ways. This guide will help you do so through Microsteps: small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to help your kids boost their resilience and reduce their stress.
In a time of heightened anxiety and fear, we may feel unsure about how to talk about what’s happening in the world with our children. Yet providing our kids with a safe outlet for asking questions and sharing their feelings can help to reduce their anxiety and reassure them that they are safe and supported. And connecting with fellow parents helps us reduce our own anxiety while navigating an uncertain time.
Ask your child what they’re hearing and how they’re feeling about the crisis. Before introducing information that might be new or scary to your child, ask questions like “are kids in school talking about Ukraine? How do you feel about it?” This will help you get a sense of what they’ve heard already — including any misinformation you can correct.
Check in with your child each day. Frequent, regular communication — as opposed to a one-time Big Talk — will establish you as a source of trust and authority at a potentially confusing time.
Affirm your child’s feelings. Instead of telling them how to feel, tell them what they feel is OK.
Anger, fear, sadness — these emotions are normal amid uncertainty and should be honored rather than pushed away. If your child is upset, you can say, “That’s OK that you feel that way. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”
Acknowledge the sadness or anger your kids may be feeling. Kids may become sad or mad when they see photos of children being separated from parents or hurt. Acknowledge what they’re feeling and praise them for their caring and empathy.
Each day, reassure your child that they are safe.
Kids feel better when they know a situation is being handled. Let them know they are not in danger and that adults are working to gain control of the situation.
Take a moment to recharge and reset before talking to your child. Don’t speak to your child about the crisis while you’re stressed, panicked, or still processing the latest news report. Instead, take a minute to breathe and think through the message you want to communicate.
Check in with a fellow parent. Call or text a friend you trust to ask how they’re managing the stress of parenthood at this time — and exchange tips. Not only does connecting raise our spirits, it also supports immune function and helps us manage anxiety.
The continuous flow of information and opinions from a variety of news and social media sources can be a great source of stress and anxiety, especially in times of humanitarian crisis. We may even sacrifice sleep to keep up with the latest updates — which only leads to a vicious cycle of stress-fueled sleep deprivation, for ourselves and our kids. But we can role model for our children that it is possible to stay informed and also recharge our physical and mental batteries. And remember: there’s a reason why airline attendants always tell us to secure our own oxygen mask first. We’re much more effective at taking care of others when we first take care of ourselves, so make a point to prioritize your own sleep, nutrition, movement, and boundaries with technology. Both you and your kids will benefit.
Set a news cut-off time at the end of the day for your child.
We can’t control the news itself, but parents can control the technology that exposes our kids to potentially upsetting news. Setting healthy limits to our media consumption helps both our children and ourselves get a better night’s sleep and put stressful news in perspective.
Take the opportunity to set (or re-set) boundaries with your child’s technology. If your child has access to a phone or tablet, review the parental controls. Unsupervised exposure to news and media during a crisis can lead to stress and fear.
If you or your child are feeling stressed about the crisis, take a minute to breathe deeply. Pausing to breathe reduces stress and encourages resilience in the face of uncertainty. And neuroscience studies have shown we can course-correct from stress in as little as 60 seconds.
Each day, practice a calming exercise with your kids — before they need it. Get out in front of stress and help kids “reset” with a routine, like going outside, reading a book, or sitting on your lap. If it helps, set regular reminders for yourself throughout the day.
Create a calming nighttime ritual. Research shows that having consistent bedtime routines — which can include taking a warm bath, reading together, or other forms of quiet bonding — can help children get better sleep.
Model a de-stressing technique in front of your children.
It’s healthy for them to see us self-regulate. If you’re feeling stressed, take a break to breathe deeply, stretch, or try another in-the-moment technique that helps you course correct from stress and that your child can see you practicing.
Carve out a daily movement break for your children. Movement and walking — outdoors especially, if possible for you — is great for boosting their mental health and lowering stress. Even a few minutes of running, jumping or stretching will make a difference.
Take a walk together. Even a three-minute walk can boost our kids’ mood and decrease stress. And especially for older kids and teens, walking side by side (without any “awkward” eye contact) can help them feel more comfortable opening up.
Add one ingredient to your next family meal that boosts your immune system.
Stress can lower our immune function, but foods rich in vitamins A and D have been shown to improve it. Up your family’s intake of Vitamin A with some cheese, eggs, and yogurt, and help them get some additional vitamin D with fish like salmon.
Look for signs of anxiety in your child.
Sometimes, kids express that they’re feeling anxious, but other times, they will worry silently. Look out for less obvious signs that they might be struggling with anxiety, like trouble sleeping, a change in appetite, or becoming more irritable or clingy. If you see signs of anxiety, reassure your child you’re there for them to talk to and answer any of their questions.
As parents, one of the biggest challenges we face is speaking to our children about topics we ourselves are struggling to understand. While we won’t be able to give them easy answers, we can show them that one of the most effective ways to manage stress and reduce feelings of helplessness is taking action.
Schedule “do good” time with your children. Feeling helpless about the crisis can exacerbate stress, so help children assert control by encouraging them to take part in an effort to do something good to help others. Try engaging with or donating to one of the organizations listed below.
Help your child find one small way to give that draws on their talents. Encourage your child to think about a skill they have and find a way to share it with someone else. It might not even have anything to do with the conflict in Ukraine. Maybe it’s helping a sibling with a homework assignment or helping with dinner prep or cleanup. Focusing on what we can do now will push back on any feelings of helplessness and allow your child to have an impact.
Support your child in engaging with the news. Take time to answer their questions in an age-appropriate way — for instance, discussing a map of the region together, or reading articles on news sites recommended for children, such as Time for Kids, Scholastic Kids Press, and The Learning Network.
Once a day, take a moment with your kids to reflect on what you are grateful for. In times of challenge or uncertainty, our brain defaults to focusing on the negative and even catastrophizing. Gratitude helps both parent and child manage stress and boost resilience.
Organizations You and Your Children Can Engage With
International Relief Organizations:
- International Medical Corps: IMC has been active in the country since 2014 providing health services, following the collapse of eastern Ukraine’s health system in the midst of conflict. IRC and their Ukraine team have taken immediate measures to ensure the safety of staff in the country and are monitoring the highly fluid situation.
- USA for UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency: UNHCR is working with the authorities, UN, and other partners in Ukraine and is ready to provide humanitarian assistance wherever necessary and possible. The international organization also aims to provide emergency assistance to families in Ukraine — providing aid such as cash assistance and opportunities for resettlement in the U.S.
- Project Hope: Project HOPE has been working in Ukraine since 2007 in the health areas of HIV services and strengthening TB control. Project Hope is mobilizing their initial humanitarian response by sending two IEHKs (Interagency Health Kits that each contain about 1 ton of medical supplies to support 10,000 people for three months).
- Save the Children: Save the Children says that 7.5 million children are at risk of severe emotional distress and displacement. They are now working with local partner organizations to expand their reach and support to Ukrainian families impacted by the crisis. Staff is working alongside humanitarian partners, and they will work to provide critical assistance as well as undertake assessments and preparations for humanitarian needs that could arise if there are massive displacements.
- UNICEF: Supports health, nutrition, HIV prevention, education, safe drinking water, sanitation and protection for children and families caught in the conflict in Ukraine.
- Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders): MSF runs a range of activities in Ukraine working with local volunteers, organizations, health care professionals and authorities to help people travel to health care facilities and access prescribed medications.
- International Committee of the Red Cross: In Ukraine, the ICRC is helping people affected by the conflict and is supporting the work of the Ukrainian Red Cross
- CARE: CARE is raising money for its Ukraine Crisis Fund, which will provide immediate aid including food, water, hygiene kits, support services and direct cash assistance. The humanitarian organization aims to raise $20 million and help at least 4 million Ukrainians. It will prioritize women and girls, families and the elderly.
- International Rescue Committee: As Russia invades Ukraine and civilians seek safety, the IRC is preparing to rush critical aid to displaced families. IRC teams are already on the ground in Poland, and working with their local partners in both Poland and Ukraine. Here is a list of other ways you can help during this time.
- World Central Kitchen: WCK is serving thousands of fresh meals to Ukrainian families fleeing home. Working at a 24-hour pedestrian border crossing in southern Poland, WCK began serving hot, nourishing meals on Friday evening. In addition to providing meals for families in Poland, WCK has a team on their way to Romania to support Ukrainians arriving there.
Ukrainian Nonprofits (And Nonprofits Operating In Ukraine):
- Voices of Children: The Ukrainian organization’s Charitable Foundation helps provide psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the armed conflict. Voices of Children’s efforts of support for kids include art therapy, video storytelling, providing mobile psychologists and even individual help for families.
- Ukrainian Red Cross: Donate to support the Ukrainian Red Cross to help civilians in this difficult time for Ukraine. Volunteers and staff of the Ukrainian Red Cross would provide first aid in areas where access to medical services will be limited; сommunication will be established and awareness of health risks will be raised. And, of course, we will provide humanitarian aid to all people in need.
- For a contribution to the Hellenic Red Cross (the Greek National Red Cross responding to the Ukraine situation), please click here (please note: website is in Greek)
- United Help Ukraine: This nonprofit organization receives and distributes donations, food and medical supplies to displaced Ukrainians “affected by Russia’s invasion.” Along with raising awareness of the crisis in Ukraine with the international community, the charity’s fundraising activities help wounded Ukrainian soldiers, and families of wounded and killed soldiers. A PayPal link is available from the official United Help Ukraine website and its Facebook page.
- Razom for Ukraine: Collected funds go toward purchasing and distributing first aid kits and medical supply packs to the doctors and volunteers who treat soldiers on the frontlines, and medical rehabilitation for those who are injured. More information is available on its Facebook page.
- Vostok-SOS supports conflict affected people and internally displaced people. The organization is responding to the escalating situation with a comprehensive humanitarian campaign, helping people evacuate, and providing humanitarian aid and psychosocial support. Vostok-SOS has hotlines open for affected people and their team is on the ground in the region, ready to coordinate aid. The organization is also partnering with German-Swiss NGO Liberico to provide immediate evacuation support to Ukrainians attempting to flee their homes. Donate here.
- Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund (Global Giving): Donations will support affected communities in Ukraine, with a focus on the most vulnerable, including children, who need access to food, medical services, and psychosocial support. GlobalGiving’s local partners in Ukraine are bringing relief to displaced families and people in high-risk areas, and they need resources to continue and expand their vital work.
Books to Read With Your Children
“What Is a Refugee?” (Ages 3-7) by Elise Gravel
This book is a simple, accessible introduction to what it means to be a refugee.
“Lubna and Pebble” (Ages 4-8) written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
A young girl holds on to her special pebble at a refugee camp — only to give it to a child who needs it even more.
“Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey” (Ages 4-8) written by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes; illustrated by Sue Cornelison
The true story of how aid workers in Greece helped an Iraqi refugee family reunite with their beloved pet.
“Talking to Your Kids in Tough Times” (for parents)
By Willow Bay
How to answer your child’s questions about the world we live in.
Breathing Resets to do With Your Children to Calm an Anxious Mind
Use this box breathing technique to reduce stress in the mind and body.
Five Finger Breathing
Calm your racing mind by engaging your senses.
Send a relaxation signal to your body and brain.
In-the-Moment Stress Relief Techniques For Your Child
CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is commonly used to treat anxiety and negative thinking. Try these three simple techniques, or a version of them that works for your family, to give your child an in-the-moment strategy for reducing stress and anxiety.
Tense and Relax
Clench your fists for 10 seconds, unclench and relax for 10 seconds. Focusing on the relaxation in the body will help to calm the mind.
Create a Calm Box
Include a few items that your child finds calming in a small box that they can bring to school. In moments of overwhelm, they can hold and focus on these items to reduce anxiety.
Write Coping Cards
Write cards with positive affirmations like, “I am strong, even if I am worried.” They can look at these cards to remind themselves that they can overcome stressful situations.