How To Talk To Children About World Events

By Jessica Furman, M.S.W., RSW, Lower and Middle School Social Worker
Inviting conversation and curiosity with your child about world events can include dialogue about scary events, such as war. It is important that we create opportunities for these discussions for several reasons.

Our children may be exposed to news and media in a number of ways — through news media, social media, the Internet, peers on the playground and at school. We have an opportunity to intercept those channels to help our children make appropriate meanings of what they are hearing and seeing through guidance and support.

Our children may not always know how to interpret or understand the images and information that they are exposed to. When they are left to their own devices, they may create their own stories or ideas about what they are hearing or seeing, which may not be “true” or may frighten them. This is where your support and understanding can be so integral. They also may not have words to describe what they are hearing and or seeing. For this reason, we shouldn’t assume that a child’s silence on these subject matters means they are unaware or unaffected. 

Your child may have questions and you may feel unsure about how to respond. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Be curious. Ask your child what they know about these events. Curiosity means we are free from assumptions about what they know (or don’t know), and how these events make them feel. Help your child identify their feelings by offering up a list of possibilities if they are having trouble finding the words that match. Remember, as adults, we lead the way. If you are modelling calm, confident and comfortable, your child is likely to read your cues and feel similarly.

  2. Offer a thin truth. A thin truth provides your child with information that is accurate to the best of your knowledge while being “simple” and age- and stage-appropriate. Your thin truth will respond to what your child is telling you and will help clarify and diffuse worries. Remember, it is easy to add information over time and as situations change, but it is very difficult to take back information that you have already shared. For example: “You are right. There is a war across the world, in Europe. The countries involved are called Russia and Ukraine. They are very far from our country, Canada.” You may wish to add a statement like: “We care about this because we care about people’s health and safety all over the world, even people far away that we don’t yet know.” This helps reinforce messages for our children of kindness, compassion and global responsibility.

  3. Offer reassurance where you can. Taking your child’s cues, you may wish to offer a statement like, “We don’t know when the fighting will stop. We do know that there are a lot of powerful people all around the world that are working very hard to help the countries resolve the conflict.”

  4. Provide something concrete that your child or family can do to help. Small acts of kindness can make a big difference to people all over the world. Invite your child to think of ways to be helpful. This might sound like “Do you know what we can do to help families in need?” You may wish to offer up, “What if we do some research together and think through ways to help?” 
  1. Continue to check in with yourself and your child. A one-off conversation is nice, but themes of kindness, compassion and global responsibility can be weaved into your dinner table discussions no matter what is going on in the news. Check in with yourself, your needs and whether you need to limit your exposure to news or if it’s the right amount for you. Check in with your child about whether their feelings have changed over time as well if they have more questions or more curiosities.
  1. We might be in the “not yet known” but we are not alone. We do not need to have answers to every one of your child’s questions. As parents, we often feel like we must soothe our children’s woes while also developing their budding curiosities. We live in a world where answers are often instant thanks to the internet, and yet some things are more complicated and answers are not always clear. That is ok. Children benefit from feeling heard and understood. You can help your child learn to tolerate the discomfort of the not yet known, by listening, validating their emotions and being there for them. An adult might make a statement like, “This can feel complicated and tricky. It's true that even I don’t have all of the answers and it's tricky for me to understand at times. I am so glad we are having this conversation. The unknown can be hard to sit with. I am here with you. I love you.”