Helping Children and Young People to Make Sense of Distressing News
As a global community, we have faced a turbulent few years, ruled chiefly by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brought. Now as we enter Spring 2022, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken over media attention and national concern. We live in a time of constant news streams and updates. It’s hard not to be filled with uncertainty and heartache every time you switch on the television or look at your phone. While we are all struggling to cope with the news, it is especially concerning for children and young people.
To help you guide those in your care through this uncertain time, our online safety experts have created this support for parents, carers, teachers, and safeguarding professionals. You’ll find a synopsis of important terms and questions, as well as our top tips for helping children and young people cope with distressing news.
What is the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military forces to begin an invasion of neighbouring country Ukraine. This is an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war that began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president of Ukraine was removed from office and Russian soldiers seized Crimea.
Since the invasion, there has been worldwide condemnation of Putin and his supporters. Protests have spread across the world (with protests in Russia resulting in arrest from police forces) as international support for Ukraine grows. Heavy sanctions (penalties to trade, sporting, and economic goods that are put in place by international leaders to try and pressure other leaders to a conduct agreement) have triggered a financial crisis in Russia, which has led Putin to put Russia’s nuclear forces on ‘high alert’ and has increased global fears of a nuclear war. Over 2 million Ukrainian citizens have fled their country. Thousands are suspected dead, with estimates expected to be higher. Many are trapped without access to necessities or medical aid. Recently, a maternity and children’s hospital was hit by a Russian airstrike resulting in multiple injuries and casualties.
Live reports are coming in every few minutes. Major news networks have constant news updates available for the public to see, despite difficulties in confirming news reports. However, the news is not the only avenue reports are appearing on. Social media is full of harrowing imagery and stories to encourage global support of Ukraine. While this is done to raise awareness of the atrocities happening in Ukraine, some of this content is extremely distressing. It’s worth nothing that if a child or young person engages with these posts on social media, the algorithms in place on these platforms will show them more.
How children react to distressing world events
While the recent news is upsetting and worrying for everyone, it is not the first disruptive event to affect the children and young people in your care. They have spent over two years adapting to a pandemic. They have endured lockdowns being isolated from their friends and family. They may even have lost loved ones during this time. Experts have warned that these events alone would have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of children and young people going forward. If someone in your care is struggling, they might be:
- Fixated, spending more time on phones or tablets to stay ‘up to date’.
- Anxious, especially about future plans or dreams.
- Irritable, over-reacting to minor inconveniences or issues.
- Withdrawn, not engaging with their friends, school, or extracurriculars.
- Distracted, with disruptions to regular eating, sleeping, or personal hygiene habits.
- Obsessive, thinking over every circumstance and talking about possible outcomes.
- Pessimistic, sharing a more negative or hopeless outlook on life.
If you are worried about a child or young person in your care, you can encourage them to speak to you or someone on their trusted team of adults. You can also point them to Childline’s support services.
Why is it important to talk to children and young people about what’s happening?
Children and young people are naturally curious. They want to know about what is going on in the world as much as they want to know the latest TikTok trend. Even if you try to limit the content they consume, they will inevitably hear about big world events from various outlets, such as television, social media, friends, family, and school environments. They might even overhear something from one of your conversations! If it’s what everyone is talking about, their interest in the topic increases.
This wide variety of sources makes it difficult to validate information and know what content the young person in your care is viewing. If you don’t acknowledge any questions or concerns they may have, they could ‘fill in the gaps’ with the wrong information. This might cause further anxiety, ignorance, or worrisome behaviour. Educating those in your care yourself is important to assure they know how to process news reports on their own with critical thinking and media literacy skills.
Some children may be curious, but not worried. Others may be uninterested in what is happening. Whether your child asks you about it or you bring it into conversation, remember to stay calm, listen to them, and reassure them that you are there if they need support or further guidance.
Top Tips for how to talk to children and young people about war
Every child is different. Their ability to process information will depend on their age, character, and resilience. As their guardian, you have to decide how much you share. You will know them best, but assessing their abilities can help you choose the level of information you share with them. For example, if you are a parent or carer of a young child who is prone to anxiety, start off with simple statements about the event while continually reassuring your child that they are safe and you are here for them. It’s important to:
- Acknowledge their concerns. Don’t deny what is happening or negate their worries by telling them it will ‘all blow over soon’. Instead, tell them their concern is completely understandable and that you want to discuss it with them.
- Be honest. While it is up to you as their guardian to protect them, it’s important that you refrain from lying in your responses or ignoring any questions or thoughts your child has. It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. This allows you to open up a discussion with your child. You could even suggest seeking the answer together!
- Ask them how they are getting their news. Having a discussion around trustworthy news sources and how difficult it is to confirm things during times of conflict might be helpful. Holding yourself to this standard is important as well! Be mindful of any news playing in your house and how you are conducting your own conversations.
- Validate their feelings. It is likely these emotions are complex and confusing for them to deal with. Remind them that, in this situation, feelings like this are normal.
- Listen to them. No matter how worried or anxious you are, they will look to you for reassurance. Set your feelings aside and give the young person in your care the attention and space they need to feel heard.
- Encourage them to limit their news intake. If they feel they are unable to look away from their phone or if they see something upsetting on their tablet, suggest they switch it off. If this isn’t realistic, advise them to only check news sources 1-2 times per day.
- Discuss what you are grateful for as a family. This could be around the dinner table or during morning drives to school. If a young person in your care seems to struggle with guilt, remind them that they have nothing to feel guilty about – just things to be thankful for! Suggest researching places that are taking in donations to bring to refugees or other ways to help the crisis in a local capacity.
- Use your words and actions to support them.Your reactions to their reactions are key to helping those in your care feel protected and loved. Tell your child you love them. Give them hugs or hold their hand. Allow them space when they need it, but remind them that you are here for them.
We know it can be difficult to decide what to share and how to respond. Remember – it’s important to remain calm, open, and honest with those in your care regardless of their age. Below, you’ll find some examples of questions you may receive about the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our online safety experts have crafted some examples of appropriate answers to help you frame what you would like to say.
To help you navigate those difficult conversations, check out our toolkit on ‘Having Supportive Conversations’.