Ukraine War: Should I tell my kids about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what should I say?

The images are distressing: we already know that innocent children have been killed and this information is disturbing even for adults, so what happens when our children are exposed to newspapers, radio and TV news?

The United Nations said that as of Monday February 28, 102 innocent civilians had been killed, including seven children. That children are already victims of this attack on Ukraine may well worry our own children.

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Here, James Mitchinson, editor of the Yorkshire Post – father of two young boys and married to professional early childhood primary school specialist Christa – explains how he and his wife have dealt with the subject with their children, aged from seven and four years old.

Q: What should we and shouldn’t we tell our children about the war in Ukraine?

Well, first of all, I must say that this is not a definitive and professional guide. Just my own approach, alongside my wife. I guess what you should and shouldn’t tell the kids about the invasion of Ukraine (I’m hesitant to call it a war, given that it’s an unwarranted invasion) depends on your child’s age. In our experience, when our children were at reception age, we sometimes felt like they were oblivious to what we were watching on the news. At least, in appearance. Although we now understand that even if you think your child isn’t necessarily paying attention to what you’re watching or listening to, their little minds can and will try to process some of it, and because they’re so young, they don’t don’t. still have the cognitive tools to understand what’s going on, so I guess our advice would be to try to protect young children from exposure to what we’re seeing in Ukraine right now – certainly some of the news footage.

What about children a little older in primary school?

This is where things get complicated; even in our house, we sometimes disagreed about what to do, so I think parental judgment is key. However, our eldest when he was five or six years old – and his peer group – became enthralled with the Horrible Histories franchise: Rotten Romans, terrible Tudors, awful Egyptians… Bombed Britons, for example. These books are amazing tools for educating your kids about key historical periods and moments, but they’re pretty gruesome in places and certainly, in our experience, have sparked some awkward conversations for us. If not those stories, then through curriculum topics and conversations at school.

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A Ukrainian child looks out the window of a car stuck in traffic as her family heads towards the Medyka-Shehyni border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

What this means for us as a family is that our eldest, even at the age of five or six, wanted to talk about wars and conflicts – albeit in a childish way – so what we have now in the hands is a little boy who asks us difficult questions – like why? Why does Vladimir Putin kill people? Killing children… children like me? And my perspective, which I’ve formed through my wife’s professional expertise and my own judgment of what he’s ready for and what he’s not ready for, is to be ready to talk to him when he asks. Think ahead about the answers you might give to their possible questions so that you are prepared to offer clear and confident answers, despite the fact that we adults are also quite confused by it all.

So what should you tell your child about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

The first thing to say is that it is entirely up to you. I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me how to parent, so I’m hesitant to preach. There is no formula or pattern for this, because there is no formula or pattern for children. Every child is wonderfully unique and you know them better than anyone – remember that.

However, if our approach is useful to other parents, I am happy to share it. Because my wife is an early childhood specialist, primary school teacher – she has worked with young children since she was 18 – I took her head off. His sight is clear; if the kids want to talk about it, you have to be prepared to talk about it with them. Don’t suppress it or shut it down, because chances are they’ll worry about it and some of their anxieties – because they’re so young – can be easily resolved by talking to mom or dad. Allowed to fester and possibly escalate in the playground talks, you could expose them to more worry. I have to say, though, that we didn’t proactively sit our eldest for a conversation about this – we didn’t have to – but in a house like ours, information is always out there, so when he asked, we calmly answered his questions. Questions like:

As your own children see Ukrainian children affected by the Russian invasion of the war, it is important that parents are prepared to answer their questions. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Q: Why do Russians kill Ukrainians?

The only possible answer we can find is that we don’t know. There is no way to explain it. We told our little boy that when wars break out people get hurt and sometimes lose their lives, adding how unacceptable this is and how sad it is for these people. We were quick to reassure him, however, that we are very lucky in this country to be very well protected and safe – this was key for Harry who can be an anxious little boy – adding that we should be ready to help anyone in Ukraine who might need our help. It was a nice moment as he then started suggesting ways to help, like sharing toys and sending books. If only we adults retained those childish impulses to be kind to one another.

Q: Why is Mr. Putin so angry with Ukraine?

The temptation to tell him that Putin is a deranged autocrat, bloodthirsty and determined to dominate the world is strong, but he will find out in time. We told him that Putin had lived so long in a certain way that he wanted everyone to live the way he lived and that he wanted to make all the rules. It was a nice moment as Harry continued. He asked, “And even in schools and all that?” Yes comrade. Everywhere. He wants people in Ukraine to only do what he says they can do and if they don’t he will get angrier and angrier. It was confusing to Harry, but he seemed to conclude that it wasn’t fair.

Advice from an early childhood specialist is to be prepared to answer any questions your children may have about the war in Ukraine. Children will become anxious if they are not explained what is happening, in addition to being reassured. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Q: Will he attack us, dad?

(Remember, he’s seven): No, man. We are all well. But, again, it’s important that countries like ours, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister and President Biden in America, do all they can to help. We can’t have one person hurting a lot of other people, can we?

“Is he a tyrant, dad?” Yes comrade. I’m afraid he is.

James added: “I hope this helps people one way or another. Unfortunately there are no easy answers.”

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