As the Russian invasion of Ukraine plays out before our eyes on our TV screens, in the newspapers and across social media, it's difficult as adults to process the enormity and brutality of what is happening.
So what should we do about children?
Is shielding them from the news the best idea, or even possible in this current age? And how do we cope with the worries children, or teenagers may have about what they’ve seen or heard?
The children can learn about it at an elementary level along with their peers. We will look at the geography of Ukraine, borders and surrounding countries
Emer Russell, principal of Scoil Ghormáin Naofa, Castletown, Co Wexford, says as a principal and parent, she's "keenly aware of the effects that constant media exposure can have on our children. I have been shielding my five-year-old son from front page images in newsagents. I try to focus on educating my children about the politics of the situation as this is their world and I want them to learn about politics from experience and not just books."
Some of Emer's pupils are already discussing what's happening, she explains. Fiadh Rusell (8) told her, "it's happening because Putin of Russia is mean and crazy. He wants more land. It's not worth it for more land as people might die."
James Wilson (12) told Emer he's "very worried about the war and children dying". He's also worried "about the war coming to Ireland".
Ellen Dixon (11) told her principal she "feels sad if it is to be World War Three" and that they should be able to "talk it out rather than use brute force".
And Tabitha Byrne says "it's unfair for all the Ukrainian people who have to move to different countries and be scared for their lives". She's also concerned about "some Russian people, because they don't want to be part of this".
Emer feels it’s “important to inform children so they don’t catastrophise in private” and she’s planning to address what’s happening in Ukraine with her pupils at their weekly assembly. “The children can learn about it at an elementary level along with their peers. We will look at the geography of Ukraine, borders and surrounding countries. We will discuss our neutrality.”
Dr Mary O’Kane, lecturer in psychology and early childhood, says “while no one wants to introduce the idea of war to our younger children”, she warns “it is very possible that children will hear about the current situation, whether this is from a friend, the playground, a news or radio report or listening to family conversations.
“It’s best to have these conversations when you are calm yourself,” Dr O’Kane says, adding “instead of telling them what you think they know, start by gently asking them what they have heard about the situation. If they are oblivious to these events, that is fine, no need to burden them.
“Answer questions as honestly as you can, without giving them too many details. Don’t avoid questions but answer them in an age appropriate way. ‘There is a war far away in Ukraine. People are fighting with each other. We are not in any danger here, but we are worried about the people in Ukraine’.”
Dr O’Kane says discussions with younger children provide an opportunity “to remind our children of the similarities between them and children across the world. Remind them that not all people from Russia support this war.”
Having spent the last two years living through a pandemic, Dr O’Kane says children’s “beliefs that the world is a safe place have already been rocked. It is not surprising that another situation which challenges their feelings of safety would provoke anxiety. Try to protect them from graphic images, however if they have already seen something that is very upsetting, again talk to them about it.”
It's about not excessively engaging with it, or underselling it, because they'll think you're hiding something from them
If talk turns to the potential for a third World War, Dr O’Kane recommends reminding children “of the good in the world. The governments from other countries who are working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“Donating to a charity to support children in Ukraine and lighting a candle in your home to show support”, can help very worried children “feel less anxious and helpless”.
When speaking to teenagers about what's happening in Ukraine, Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, says it's important not to talk down to them. "If you're patronising or you're trying to overly-sanitise things, they're going to find the information elsewhere and they're going to lose trust in what you have to say.
“You tailor the information to the temperament of the child. Those who are overworriers and overthinkers may need less information. And those who lack a social conscience might need to be nudged in that direction to develop one, but the issue is about regulation of their own emotions.”
Teenagers will be influenced by how calm or moderate their parents are when having these discussions, Dr Noctor explains. “Rather than saying ‘sometimes the bad guys win and the good guys lose’, it’s maybe about the complexity of human beings and when people don’t have what they want, they can tantrum, and when it’s a world leader who’s tantruming it can have fairly disastrous consequences.
“What you’re trying to reassure people is that the measured-ness and the equilibrium and the sensibleness and reasonableness – that far outweighs the dictatorship, even though the impact of their actions is far-reaching. There’s a lot more good in the world than there is bad.”
The multicultural society in which we live means children may have friends and classmates who are directly impacted by the invasion, and Dr Noctor says. “What’s interesting about this war is it that it seems to be very much Putin and not Russia... a separation between the Russian people and the Russian government. An encouraging element of teenage discourse is that they are able to hear it from other people’s perspective and see that sometimes decisions are made on behalf of countries rather than by countries.”
Speaking to teenagers once about what’s happening in Ukraine, will not suffice, Dr Noctor cautions, explaining that parents will need to return to the conversation repeatedly as the situation evolves. “But all the while you’re moderating their exposure. You just don’t want to get them dysregulated by the loop of media.
“Be realistic, without being hopeless,” he advises, emphasising the need for balance again. “It’s about not excessively engaging with it, or underselling it, because they’ll think you’re hiding something from them.”