Talking with kids about the war in Ukraine

The announcement came from my daughter in the car at school pick-up: “Russia’s invaded Ukraine.” I could tell from her tone that this was like telling us who had a new haircut or who got the most goals in soccer at lunchtime: big news that yearned for expression, but without much sense of what next.

And so it was the war came on our family radar, from which it hasn’t faded. Amongst dishes and diaries, there’s been this disaster, at once all-consuming yet also remote. Some commentators I’ve read (and there is no shortage) say this war may last a decade, maybe more. With that mind, I wondered about other parents and grown-ups with children in their lives: how are we going in talking with kids about the war in Ukraine, for a while yet?

I’m writing as a dad and pastor. What follows has been my experience, but I also hope it’s encouraging exhortation for these complex times. And it’s directed at parents or guardians, but many of us will have a child in our lives and communities, so be encouraged to sit with these whoever you and they are.

Five reflections:

  1. As the parent, do your own theological reflection first

My kids often ask questions at unexpected times. Processing big issues through a biblical framework (before they are brought up in the car at school pickup) is incredibly helpful. Eg. What about God do I know that helps me make sense of this war? What does this war reveal about people? What’s my understanding of the good news/gospel, and what difference does it make here? What questions remain unanswered for me? As I do this, I trust that the Christian worldview is the most coherent one for handling hard realities. Yes, evil sucks. No, God has not forgotten us. Yes, Jesus is still King. No, people are not loving each other the way God wants.

If we don’t have these frames of reference, how can we expect our kids to? It’s like the sex conversation: if you’re not the first to have it with them, someone else will lay a foundation you’ll likely have to dig up and rebuild.

  1. Answer the question they ask, not the question they don’t.

My kids respond well when I answer a question head on. A good answer to the question ‘How long is the war going to last?’, is ‘I don’t know’. There are several other kinds of answers that either overshare (‘Well, Russia has nuclear weapons and we’ve not seen this sort of fighting before’), or are dismissive (‘Don’t worry about that, darling, it’s not important for us in Australia’).

There’s plenty of nuance needed, but ‘nuance’ is an adult word. Given the age of our children, we might save the ‘What about civilian Russians suffering sanctions and economic fallout?’ conversation for peers. And rather than trying to provide balanced commentary with fair counterpoints, I ask age-appropriate questions of them. This way, children are encouraged that we are safe people to talk to, and that actually we don’t have all the answers, because why else would we be asking them questions?

  1. Expect children to make it about them

Developmentally, this is normal, not selfish. One of my younger children had this first response in the car on Day 1: “Will I die?”. I tried to take this opportunity to reassure him of what doesn’t change between us and God, even amongst this war. The flipside is that because their world is child-centric, we can also follow their lead and focus on Ukrainian children and how they might be feeling.

And whilst it’s true that this war feels all-consuming to parents glued to their smartphones for the latest update in the news cycle, we must try to be present with our kids and engage in what one writer called “a liturgy against evil”: play. The truth is, the moment you’ve just learned about another city’s invasion, kids will want to show you their Lego creation, call you outside to kick a ball, or ask for more afternoon tea. Life carries on for them, and this is a good reset moment for us too.

  1. Notice and tend to any signs of anxiety

When children scrape knees and the cry of ‘My leg’s broken!’ goes up, we learn early on to crouch down and listen first, then get a band-aid and ratchet down that fracture to a flesh wound. In this time of international conflict, we need to be even more vigilant about the worries and concerns this war raises for the children in our lives, paired with a calm presence. For some children, worry will be short-lived. For others, we will need to watch for symptoms of anxiety (eg. headaches, nightmares, homesickness, avoidance), show compassion, and act wisely. I’ve found it helpful to ‘tool up’ for my kids’ sake, by reading relevant books, listening to podcasts, and identifying pathways to support my kids if, and when they need it.

Professional support, including referrals to mental health specialists, is not an overreaction. No one expected a two year-long global pandemic, and no one expected this war to follow on its heels. The toll has been heavy on our children and baseline resilience is low.

  1. Get involved

Pray. Let’s teach our kids to intercede for the nations together. I have noticed that it is helpful for my kids to see me and other grown-ups get emotional about injustice; it is good to model pouring out these pleas in dependant prayer. And if it comes up one-to-one, pray with this child in your life about their feelings, questions, and reactions to the war.

Give. If your family is used to discussing financial partnerships with aid organisations or similar, make it a point to shift your giving to an organisation or movement helping Ukrainians on the ground. If it helps, intentionally redirect money that was planned for (eg.) the movies or takeaway dinner to such an organisation, discussing together what you hope can happen with that gift.

And Lord, have mercy.

Rob Imberger

Senior Pastor

Wellspring Anglican Church