How to Talk to Your Children About War

We'd all like the world to be free of war and violence. Nevertheless, these human tragedies are inescapable and our children are no strangers to them. However, how should you talk to them about these issues?
How to Talk to Your Children About War
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Little ones aren’t oblivious to the social events that surround them and the suffering they see on television can affect them in many different ways. Furthermore, the comments and conversations they hear from adults create ideas and images in their minds that can sometimes be traumatic.

We mustn’t underestimate the interpretations they make of what they see and hear. Indeed, in this hyper-connected world, they can access news and violent scenes with a single click by picking up a cellphone, tablet, or computer, regardless of their age. Therefore, it’s important to be with them, talk to them, and perceive how they’re processing the situation.

Naturally, we’d all love for our world to be the way John Lennon described it in his famous song, Imagine. A world that lives life in peace. A reality without greed and hunger. A world where everything is shared and there’s unity among everyone.

Unfortunately, this universe of harmony and goodness isn’t yet possible. Once again we find ourselves facing scenarios that we thought were in the past. In fact, s adly, they’re now happening every minute of the day. Although it’s painful, our children form a  part of this complex and threatening present.

Below, we discuss what strategies you can follow to talk to your children about war.

Girl with social communication disorder
It’s common for children to experience feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear about issues such as war.

How to talk to your children about war

Obviously, you can’t hide what’s happening in the world from your children. Indeed, it’s increasingly difficult to control the content to which they’re exposed. For instance, news programs often broadcast disturbing images, for which even you’re often not prepared.

This means that everything your children see and hear is processed by their young minds, causing them great anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. Added to that is the fact that they see so many children fleeing from the war and the bombings with their mothers. This makes them empathize and identify much more with the situation in front of them.

They also see the fear and pain on your face and, at school, they talk about what’s happening. All of this can create many challenges, threats, and also doubts in their minds. In such a terrifying context, it’s vital to have open, sincere and close conversations with your little ones. Also with your teens.

Let’s see what resources and strategies you can follow to talk to your children about war.

It’s important to know how to adapt your conversation. You have to use terms and expressions that they understand so that they have a real idea, but not a threatening one, about what’s happening.

1. Be aware of what they know and understand about what’s happening

It doesn’t matter if your children are four or 13 years old. From the moment they’re exposed to the images of a war scene with all the drama that this implies, their mind creates meaning about what it sees. Therefore, it’s crucial to ask them direct questions about what they understand to be happening.

It may be the case that your children believe that we’re facing a world war and that what they see on television could also happen to them. Try to find out exactly what they’re thinking and what mental narrative they have about what’s happening.

2. Adapt your language so they can understand you

Your children may not understand terms like ‘warfare’, ‘humanitarian corridors’ or ‘nuclear threat’. Therefore, you must adapt your language so they understand you by using simple, non-threatening words. You don’t need to go into details, it’s enough to offer them a general idea.

3. Validate their emotions

Some little ones become increasingly silent. They don’t express what they feel or think because they can’t find the right words to do so. This situation may also be new to them. In these cases, it’s useful to use your emotional intelligence, to enable them in their own emotional awareness and expression.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania highlights the importance of educating children from an early age in this particular competence. It helps with their psychological well-being and their communication skills.

Little ones need to understand that the fear or anxiety they feel is completely normal. Talking about what’s inside them means they’ll feel much better.

It’s really common for children to feel threatened and think that what they see on television might happen to them. Therefore, you must try to quell and rationalize their fears.

4. Reassure them

When talking to your children about war, you must mitigate their fears. This means rationalizing, reassuring, and protecting them. You mustn’t lie to them, and you shouldn’t tell them that the war and the suffering they see on TV is a movie. You need to tell them the truth. However, try and guide the conversation toward a positive perspective.

Explain that there are people who are working toward peace. Remind them that they’re not in any danger, and are completely safe. Tell them that the whole world is trying to help all those people who are suffering and that the children they see on the TV are being protected.

5. Look for signs of anxiety or worry in them

Little ones can exhibit their anxiety or fear in many ways. They may be more withdrawn and less communicative. They also might have nightmares. As a matter of fact, their drawings often reveal many of their fears.

Try to be attentive to changes in their behavior in order to respond as soon as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask for professional help if necessary.

Child holding on to the legs symbolizing how to talk to children about wars
As much as possible, limit your children’s exposure to images of war on the TV.

6. Try to restrict their exposure to content about war

You shouldn’t try and make your children believe that war isn’t real. Because that would be a lie. Nevertheless, you should try and ensure they’re not excessively exposed to worrying images on the TV. In fact, try and avoid these situations completely.

In the same way, you must control what you say in front of them to other adults. Because, sometimes, you might find yourself talking to your partner, friends, or relatives about the situation in Ukraine in front of them. This lets them know you’re worried which can be counterproductive.

7. Give them strategies to help those affected by the conflict

One useful way you might want to talk to your children about war is by suggesting that they can help. Indeed, instilling the idea of undertaking some kind of humanitarian work will make them feel good. That’s because they’ll recognize that they’re helping those who are suffering.

As a matter of fact, helping won’t only make them feel better, but they’ll also be learning about the fact that the world requires humanity. Remember, our children are the hope that, tomorrow, wars will have no place or meaning.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Shanwal, Vinod & Kaur, Gurpreet & Singh, S.B. & Kumar, Sudeep. (2006). Emotional Intelligence in School Children: A socio-demographic study. Journal of Psychosocial Research. 1. 1-13.
  • Slone M, Shoshani A. Children Affected by War and Armed Conflict: Parental Protective Factors and Resistance to Mental Health Symptoms. Front Psychol. 2017 Aug 23;8:1397. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01397. PMID: 28878705; PMCID: PMC5572511.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.