How to explain war to children: Tips from Penn GSE

Marsha Richardson, director of Penn GSE’s School and Mental Health Counseling Program, says navigating disturbing current events is challenging, but can be done in thoughtful and supportive ways.

In an ever-changing world, parents and educators are too often faced with explaining complex and challenging events to children. And perhaps nothing is more difficult to explain than violence, particularly war and armed conflict.

Navigating those conversations is hard—but not impossible, says Marsha Richardson, director of Penn GSE’s School and Mental Health Counseling Program.

A cartoon of a group of people including children watching a scene on the television.
Image: Lazy_Bear for Adobe Stock

She explains that adults must help bridge the gap, offering support and understanding as school-age children navigate and process world events in a healthy and constructive way.

“When it comes to issues like (war), sometimes we can find it hard to connect the dots between a child’s behavior and the events unfolding in the world around them,” explains Richardson. “This is about being in tune with and understanding, developmentally, the ways in which these stressful situations might manifest for children.”

Richardson advises adults to first do some self-reflection. Before trying to talk a child through this, take the time to self-reflect on one’s own emotional state as well as any political, moral, and religious views—these will influence any response to the situation, the conversation, and any questions a child might have.

Keep the child’s age in mind; when dealing with conversations around such complex situations, it’s easy to forget the age of your audience. When talking about the war with a child, consider their age and developmental stage—and respond to their questions and comments accordingly. Remember, too, that the child's age could determine the nature of their concerns. Get out in front of misinformation or biases—for children of all ages, be sure to ask them what they know. Correct any misinformation or negative generalizations they may have.

Parents of younger children should limit their child's access to news coverage of the war. Traumatic videos and photographs of dead bodies and bombings frequently make it to air in these situations. While older children might be better equipped to deal with the shocking imagery of televised war coverage, they should still be supervised to help them process what they hear and see. Caregivers should also pay attention to any regressive behaviors that might manifest, as some children won’t be able to articulate their stress over what’s happening.

Read more at Penn GSE.