Six tips to help explain the realities of war to children

It’s a daunting task, but not impossible, says Penn GSE’s Marsha Richardson.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the lead story on every news outlet, parents and educators are now placed in the position of having to explain the enormously complex emotions and realities of war to children who have already had a deeply traumatic couple of years.

A concerned young child sitting on a couch listening to an adult.

It’s a daunting task—but not impossible, says Penn GSE’s Marsha Richardson, director of GSE’s School and Mental Health Counseling Program.

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

First, advises Richardson, do some self-reflection. Before trying to talk a child through this, take the time to self-reflect on your emotional state as well as your political, moral, and religious views. Keep the child’s age in mind. As you approach talking about the war with a child, consider their age and developmental stage—and respond to their questions and comments accordingly. Keep in mind, also, 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, and provide them with the truth and context they need. Additionally, consider limiting news consumption. Parents of younger children might want to limit their child’s access to news coverage of the war. Look for changes in behavior. Parents 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. And lastly, be sure to seek support—both within your personal spheres and professionally—to help you manage your own distress.

Read more at Penn GSE.