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How to talk to children about the war: psychologist’s advice

Today this question is the most frequent request to specialists from Ukrainian parents: how to explain to a child what is happening in his country so as not to traumatize their psyche? Let's figure it out with Iryna Basista, the psychologist of the "Unbreakable Mom" project from the "Masha FUND".

A full-scale war has been going on in Ukraine for six months. And children do not live in a vacuum – they communicate with others, hear adults’ conversations and perfectly understand when something is not as usual. Therefore, it is impossible to pretend that nothing is happening.

 

– Children are self-centered: they believe they influence the world with their behavior. And therefore, if you don’t talk to them, they will make up their minds, – psychologist Iryna Basista believes. – Our children were not supposed to know what war is, but now it is part of their life, so they should have words for it. And the main task of parents is to help their children choose words for these new events and their reactions to these events. So the question is: how to talk to a child so that it is as painless, useful, and understandable as possible?

 

The first thing to start with is the child’s age.

 

With a child under two years old, who can already talk and understands a little about what is happening, you need to talk about the war very gently. It is an experience they will live with for the rest of their life. And it must be described in words so as not to be traumatic in the future. For example, while hiding in the basement, when the kid is crying loudly, the baby’s mother starts to explain that the house is dangerous and they need to be in a safe place right now. Yes, it’s cold and uncomfortable here, but I’m with you. Did mom talk about the war? Yes! Did it help the child to calm down? Yes! Did the child understand something?
No. But the mother’s words, feelings, and voice calmed the child.

 

– The older the child, the more specific explanations are needed. From the age of two and older, explain everything that is happening, what you have to face, – advises Iryna Basista. – For example, I took my son to a safe place in time, and we did not hear the sounds of explosions. But he still communicates with other children and then asks me the question: what is a gun, a bomb? Why did the russians attack us? In such cases, my brain strains because it is necessary to choose words that are clear for a child, to be careful in definitions, and, of course, to understand what it is and why.

 

You should not avoid discussing painful topics with older children either, because they already know more and see the difference between peaceful and war life. It is especially essential to talk more, and sometimes initiate conversations, with those children who survived the occupation or other war experiences. Yes, they can react to feelings, and you can learn more about how the child perceived this experience and correct it in time.

 

You need to be especially careful with teenagers. They are already vulnerable at this age, and there is also war. Talk to them as openly as possible and constantly give them a sense of security and explain that they can rely on you in their emotions.

 

The basic rules of conversation should be as follows:

– be honest as trusting relationships are the most important thing;

– be consistent – a child needs a narrative and sequence: first, there was this, then this, etc.;

– fewer emotions, more informativeness – so you don’t scare the child;

– choose the most understandable words that correspond to the age;

– do not avoid conversations when the child initiates them; if it is untimely, then be sure to return to them;

– monitor children’s reactions and provide support.

The “Unbreakable Mom” rehabilitation program has been developed by specialists in psychology and post-traumatic syndromes for women and children affected by war. It is a 3-week offline camp, where psychologists work with project participants, and then online support for three months.

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