Walking past our local school, I noticed the ‘Thank you NHS’ rainbow banner that has brought a message of thankfulness, comfort and hope to our community over the last couple of years had been taken down and replaced with another poignant emblem – the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine.

This is now the symbol that our children walk past on their way into school.

We will all have been shocked as the media reports have brought home to us the reality of war in Europe. And the news is not restricted to adults – our children are watching this tragedy unfold in real time on their screens. In our 24-7 digital age we can’t shield them from witnessing the suffering of families – distressing pictures of children just like them, caught up in the conflict. And even if our children and young people aren’t accessing images and reports on social media, they will almost certainly be getting accounts from their friends. Our children are growing up in an anxious world. They have just spent the past two years struggling to manage their anxiety about the pandemic, only to have that replaced by real fears of a nuclear disaster or a third world war.

As parents we may be feeling overwhelmed, struggling to find words to make sense of what is going on ourselves, let alone being able to talk about it to our children. But talk to them we must. Depending on their personalities, our children may respond differently, but the escalating crisis will undoubtedly be leading to feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear that need to be unpacked. As parents, we are best placed to do that.

If we are feeling out of our depth, it may be worth standing back and reminding ourselves that we have done this before. We have had two years of learning how to manage our own emotions around Covid and finding ways to bring reassurance to our children. And it is the lessons of the past two years that we can use to help us in this unfolding crisis.

To remind us, here are a few principles that can help:

Be prepared

Our children will have big questions and it is worth taking time to work out in advance what we want to say, so we aren’t caught on the back foot. It’s helpful to take an individual child’s age and temperament into account, and talk to other parents to share ideas and approaches.

Make time to talk

Plan times to talk for as often and long as they need. Rather than one big talk, take opportunities to chat little and often in the context of family life – over meals, in the car or when walking the dog.

Listen

During those talks, ask open questions and listen to what your children’s concerns really are. Give them space and permission to talk about what is worrying them, and let them know that it’s normal to feel sad or upset. Resist the temptation to try and fix the problem and give them the value of just being listened to and understood.

Offer reassurance

Perhaps one of the most important things we can do is offer reassurance. Rather than focusing on things outside our control, we can emphasise what we do know. For example, we can explain that governments across the world are working hard to find solutions. Although it’s important to explain things to our children, it’s also OK to admit that we don’t have all the answers. A hug or a cuddle may be all that’s needed to provide reassurance.

Manage our own emotions

If we are feeling anxious ourselves, we can find ways to process our own emotions and try to keep a calm atmosphere in the home, so that we can stay calm when discussing the conflict. To manage anxiety, the NHS and Anxiety UK recommend eating well, getting outside, putting your phone down, and making time to rest.

Find practical ways to show support

There are lots of practical ways children can be involved in making a difference, such as writing to an MP, giving pocket money to a fundraising event, lighting a candle or saying a prayer.

To hear more on building your child’s emotional wellbeing, look out for Katharine speaking on tour this spring at a live event near you.

Katharine Hill

About the author

Katharine Hill is UK Director Care for the Family. She is a well-known speaker, broadcaster and author of a number of books. She is married to Richard, and they have four grown-up children and four grandchildren.

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