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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine advancesthe news and visuals of human suffering and destruction are distressing and anxiety-inducing for every individual. And while as adults we often have better tools to deal with the nervousness and uncertainty about the future, children often don’t, especially those who are in their middle childhood (age 5-12 years). How can you address their confusions and questions with an open and honest discussion?

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Should you talk about it?

Dr Samir Parikh, director, Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis healthcare says the key is to understand “whenever a child is exposed to anything in media, some conversation around that needs to happen, because if the parents don’t help the children understand and assimilate that information, it will be left to the child’s own interpretation and they can be at risk of misunderstanding, developing emotional reactions, and having behavioral changes. Right now, the war is something that is covered so much around them; it is important to sensitively explain to them what is actually happening based on their age group and understanding.”

Younger children may not distinguish between images on screen and their own personal reality and may, hence, believe they’re in immediate danger, even if the conflict is happening far away, reminds Dr Abhijit Bagde, consultant pediatrician and lead pediatric intensivist, Apollo Hospitals , Navi Mumbai. It is still important to have the conversation to explain to children there are people in the world who might do harmful things that impact others. “Children should not live in a bubble. They should know there are unfavorable events that happen everywhere,” says Dr Valli Kiran, consultant psychiatrist, SPARSH Hospital.

How should you go about it

The focus of parents and teachers, when they talk to children, should be on the learning component: how it is bad, how is it harmful, why it should be avoided, why finding peace without fighting is important, notes Dr Parikh. For some parents, it might be hard to broach the conversation if the child isn’t vocally expressing their anxiety. In such a case, Dr Bagde suggests to “find out what they know and how they feel, what the source of the information was”. “Once the child starts expressing the thoughts, this can reduce their anxiety about it. Initially, some children may find difficulty in articulating right words. However, listening to the child’s mind, having patience and validating the feelings are important initial steps.”

For kids in the age group 6-12, it is difficult to understand the realistic picture of war. “One can try to simplify it and explain it to them based on the amount of interest and ability to absorb information. If they are showing that ability, one can share the information bit by bit without overwhelming them with details,” advises Dr Kiran.

To this Dr Parikh adds: “Make sure their routines are normal, use play and creative ways like reading and writing to express. Also, pick teaching moments when they are seeing something, provide open-ended spaces for them to talk.”

Check your emotions

In most instances, young children often react to their parents’ distress. The sight of a disturbed/anxious/angry parent can be a disturbing thing for the child. “It’s important to monitor your own emotions when you’re talking about war,” reminds Dr Bagde, adding that “the parent must use appropriate words, tone and timing so as to provide some facts and some explanations without going into too many details. The parent’s reassuring words are very crucial for child’s temperament.”

How to field questions

How much to discuss and what to discuss when it comes to war and death depends on the age and development of the child. Once the dialogue starts, it is likely the child may ask some difficult questions. “For some questions, parents can always use phrases like ‘I don’t know’, ‘let me read and get back to you later’,” says Dr Bagde. He adds that it’s okay for parents to not know or explain everything. One can also use historic examples and stories as references.

It is also important to reassure them their safety and based on their ability to take things, “parents should provide psychologically safe explanations without worrying too much about being scientifically correct”. “We can simplify things in a way that they are able to absorb, and once they grow older, they will understand and have a much more sophisticated understanding of issues,” notes Dr. Kiran.

Exposure to news and visuals

“Exposure of violence, war, and devastation in principle is harmful; kids may develop reactions, and there is evidence it may be traumatic and develop into future experience of anxiety as well,” warns Dr Parikh. This is why it is important to monitor and limit the amount and kind of exposure kids have to the Ukraine-Russia conflict visuals and news.

“Be cautious about what you are watching. It’s best to avoid any sort of gory content when children are around. If children are interested in knowing about war, make sure you pick the right content that helps them to understand things in a simplistic way,” suggests Dr Kiran.

What if they’re not interested?

You can avoid having a discussion on the issue if your child hasn’t been exposed to the news or visuals at all, or if they are not interested in the issue. “Unless they come around and ask you or show some kind of curiosity, parents and teachers should not deliberately explain things like war to young children. If they are above 8 years old and show some interest, then one can try and explain to them in simple terms without getting into the gory details,” advises Dr Kiran stressing on the importance of censoring visuals and information for kids.

Behavioral changes

Dr Bagde says it is important to watch for behavioral changes in kids. “These include sleep disturbances (nightmares, difficulty falling asleep, or repeated waking up at night), loss of appetitespontaneous sobbing or crying and excessive clinginess to parents.”

“Poor academic performance, inability to focus can also be symptoms more common for older children. These are various common symptoms expressed by children of different age groups,” he says, advising: “If you notice any of those, speaking to the child with honesty, reassuring words is the key. If you perceive that the child is severely affected, parents or teachers can always seek professional guidance from pediatricians, psychiatrists and counselors.”

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