War in Ukraine: how to answer children’s questions

More than a month after the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, the flow of information on this issue and the arrival of refugees are at the center of children’s concerns. Julie Marchand and Lydia Petit, psychologists at the Center Médico Psychologique Fernand-Léger, answer the questions we ask ourselves.

How can you talk to your child about the war? Can you suggest a method?

There is no magic formula or “instruction manual”, although of course the terms and discourse must be adapted to the child’s emotional and intellectual maturity. Parents who apply instructions to the letter risk not being authentic, which could have negative repercussions.

It is important that you listen to your child about this topic, as well as to anyone who may disturb them, allowing them to freely ask questions if they have any, or expressing your concerns or possible feelings. Being heard, but more importantly being heard, is in itself reassuring.

Should we definitely talk to them about it? Even if they don’t mention the topic?

A child who doesn’t talk about it doesn’t mean they don’t care or are concerned about the issue of war. Other signs that can be alerted by language: eating disorders, trouble sleeping, unusual irritability, a child who has stopped playing, for example.

What if there really aren’t any warning signs on the subject?

The same event can have different effects depending on the person, their family history, their experiences, their environment, their own sense of insecurity.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be talked about “at any price”. After the assassination of Samuel Paty, teachers were forced to rush the subject in class within a very short period of time. It was found that the effects were not necessarily positive. Some students who had never heard of it had trouble understanding what they were hearing. The hurry seems to complicate the preparatory work of counselling, of conversation between adults, of listening, in short, of meaningful collective work. Humans need a purpose to exist and to feel safe.

How should you approach a discussion about the war with your children?

The most important thing is to welcome the child’s language and emotions, uncertainty or doubts in the answer are not problematic, they can be formulated. Parents who don’t know what to say to children can tell them, “At the moment I don’t have an answer, but we will find out to bring you information..

For example, if you are helpless, you can turn to other adults, friends, family, or even suggest that the child search books or magazines with them for an answer. This exchange enables the creation of meaning. Language, exchange, culture remain very effective means for people to face the harshness of reality!

Isn’t there a danger of “confessing” to your child that we don’t know or that we too are afraid of war?

The adult can state that he is not infallible and state that he too is concerned about the war or its consequences, specifying that the issue is not about the child. Children are very self-centered. Due to their affective and cognitive immaturity, very young children in particular tend to believe that they are responsible for everything that happens to them, positive or negative, this is called magical thinking. . Welcoming questions without invalidating them is already an important step.

Shall we comfort them in their fears?

It is important to validate their emotions. “Yes, you have the right to be afraid of war”. We tend to want to protect them too much, to do everything we can to prevent them from feeling the slightest fear or negative emotion, but they are part of their construction and part of being human. To deny them would be to deny their way of perceiving the world, especially when he senses that the adults around him are concerned about themselves. type answers “do not be afraid” Where from “Don’t think about it”, “Stop Talking About It” don’t help them.

Do you still have to tell them the whole truth?

Above all, we must not deny reality, especially when the children have seen images of the war on television, we must accompany and explain, avoiding overly Manichaean answers (“The good guys on one side, the bad guys on the other”). When faced with images, it is essential, especially with small children, to stand by their side and “filter”, i.e. to accompany the images with a speech. Experience shows that when such an event enters the media space, it is not relevant to keep television in a loop on the news channels.

However, how do you avoid traumatizing them?

The question of war is very often correlated with the question of death. And death is part of life.

War on the TV screen in the living room or bedroom can be upsetting and therefore traumatic for the child. It’s also more about accompanying the children, de-dramatizing them, taking a step back. Human history is marked by wars, attacks, defenses, resistance… The re-enactment of wars in history makes it possible to present a chronology (a beginning, an evolution, an end).

We can also help the child locate these events on a map or terrestrial globe, which will allow them to locate them and represent a specific distance. The war in the living room or bedroom TV is then no longer so close. This redefines a security perimeter.

The question of the resolution is also a calming element, for example you can locate the events on a frieze of time, a beginning, a progress, an end, a resolution….like the fairy tales for children, the content of which is also often quite frightening!

Should we worry if the children play war with each other?

Of course, children must be allowed to play in war, as they always have. The game allows the child to work out something about their fears and their perception of the world. These games are part of their construction. The game is a symbolic staging. As long as it’s a game, it’s healthy, because playing means agreeing on a more or less explicit rule “pretend”, “it is for fake”

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