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How to Deal with the Concept of War With Children
April 2022
Reading time 3 Minutes

Living North columnist Dr Maurice Duffy explains why we shouldn’t shelter our kids from the reality of war and conflict

Ukraine’s 7.5 million children are caught in the middle of the war with Russia. Their lives are at risk. So is their mental health and the potential for long-term trauma. Here in the UK, we have approx. 13 million children, who because of social media, news channels and adult conversations are very aware of what is going on. Many are frightened and don’t know what to expect. Parents around the world are likely facing similar questions at home from their children about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Duffy war with children, sunflower, art

I am lucky as I often get asked to talk to kids in schools, and I get to learn what bright, talented caring individuals they are. In the many school discussions I have, recently the kind of questions I hear from kids are: ‘What is the war about? Why are Russia and Ukraine fighting? I’m scared the war will spread to our country, will that happen? Is this the start of World War Three?’

We must answer these questions factually and succinctly. Ignoring or avoiding the topic can lead to children feeling lost, alone and even more scared, which can affect their long-term health and wellbeing. It is essential that we, as parents, have an open and honest conversation with our children to help them process what is happening.

Now you might be tempted to bat your kids questions away and say, ‘don’t worry about that’. The challenge that presents itself is that parents who don’t really listen to their children tend to have children who don’t really listen to their parents. Our kids are like a mirror; what they see and hear they will do. So, if we want them to be well balanced, we need to be a good reflection for them. The way we as parents listen and talk to our children, becomes their inner voice. The question you must ask yourself is, what do we want that inner voice to say when they are alone and frightened?

Listening to your kids’ questions gives you the chance to help them understand the world’s events in a safe, calm and measured family environment. The single most powerful thing that you can do in times of uncertainty – particularly with anxious children – is to telegraph calm. A child will follow your example, not your advice. When talking and really engaging with your kids, let them know you’re glad to be talking to them about it. 

‘Parents should not dominate the conversation: they should encourage the child to talk and respond to their worries specifically’

Here are five things that will help you to have real conversations with your kids.

1. Take time out to listen

‘I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I am going to learn, I must do so by listening.’

To me, parents and carers must first deal with their children’s emotions by listening, before calmly exploring the facts as the children themselves see them. Parents should not dominate the conversation: they should encourage the child to talk and respond to their worries specifically. Children will listen to you, after they feel listened to. 

2. Be honest

In times of uncertainty, it’s never more important for your child to have a strong, secure and trusting relationship with you. If you tell your child something that is not true, it may harm your relationship and their sense of stability.

3. Don’t speak down to the child

When we want to really talk to our kids, we must understand that talking is not yelling instructions. Yelling only drowns your message in noise. Most parents think that if only our child would just ‘behave,’ we could be good parents. The truth is that managing our own emotions and actions is what allows us to be good parents. Ultimately, we can’t control our children or what life throws at them – but we can always control our own actions and words. Parenting isn’t about what our child does, but about how we respond.

4. Be aware of the news they hear

If news aimed at adults is overheard by your child, don’t hide it or hurriedly switch it off, because that sends a message that the news is somehow a secret or even dangerous. Speak to them about how they feel. It is important that children feel supported in the conversation. They should not feel judged or have their concerns dismissed. Remind them that this is not their problem to solve. They shouldn’t feel guilty playing, seeing their friends and doing the everyday things that make them feel happy.

5. Give them a practical way to help

They could start fundraisers, write letters to local decision-makers, or create drawings for peace. Children who have the opportunity to help can feel like they are part of the solution instead of feeling helpless.

My final thoughts are… 

You know that quote ‘when I was a child, I was afraid of ghosts. When I grew up, I realised people are more scary’: as parents and adults if we nurture the dreams of our children, the world will be a better place. If we destroy them, the world is doomed!

Even if people are still very young, they shouldn’t be prevented from saying what they think. They must be listened to. Children are more than we think they are. They can do more than we think they can do. All they need is our vote of confidence and respect from grown-ups, whom they will ultimately replace anyway. Allow them to share their dreams of today so that those dreams can be their reality of tomorrow.

Don’t shelter your kids from the reality of war and conflict. Let’s really listen to them and help them to not be scared.

Dr Maurice Duffy

Dr Maurice Duffy is Visiting Professor at Sunderland, consulting coach to the NHS, the Australian cricket team, Durham Cricket Club, international golfers, rugby and many sports people, and also coaches many senior FTSE 100 business leaders and politicians around the world. Find out more at or follow him on twitter  @thebeaksquawks

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