Talking to kids about Ukraine

Ukraine presents an empathy teaching moment. Photo: Lytvyn

Just when the world was start-ing to feel a little more normal — Covid numbers were declining, and mask mandates were being lifted — the conflict between Russia and Ukraine was intensifying. It was a conflict we all hoped wouldn’t end the way it has with Russia invading Ukraine, sending in troops, and bombing cities. The night of the invasion we were supposed to go to a basketball game together as a family, but after watching the news it felt strange to do something so normal while daily life for Ukrainians changed overnight. I felt that same heavy feeling that I had at the beginning of the pandemic return: fear, uncertainty, and sadness.

Young people have access to more news sources than ever, so it is important to talk with them, answer their questions, and understand what they are reading, seeing, and hearing. Here are some tips on how to do that:  


Whenever a big news story breaks, I find myself reverting to my news producer days, wanting to consume and understand it all — CNN playing in the background while I’m making dinner, scrolling Twitter in the down moments, and news podcasts while driving. I don’t think I am alone; it is completely understandable to want to stay up-to-date on the latest news, but we need to be aware of the effects this may be having on our own mental well-being. We also need to be aware of when our children are around that they may be listening and watching, too. We need to find a way to turn it all off when it becomes too much so we can manage our own fear and anxiety. The same is true for our kids — we don’t want to bombard them with news or images that are scary and only make them more anxious or fearful. This is easier to control when our kids are younger. As they grow older and have their own devices with access to the Internet and social media this can be harder, so make sure to talk to them about how to make smart media choices.


One of the ways our kids can make smart media choices is by making sure they are getting their information from vetted sources. Ask them where they are getting their information. Much to their dismay, TikTok is not a reliable news source. Common Sense Media recommends several news apps and sites specifically designed for kids. For younger kids, KidNuz is a daily podcast that is age appropriate and has a quiz at the end to test their comprehension. For teens, have them try NPR or HuffPost Teen. If they are looking for more than a headline, one of my favorite podcasts is “The Daily” by the New York Times, where they take a deeper dive into one of the top stories of the day. It is only 20 minutes long and easy to fit in on a walk or while driving. 


Whatever the ages of your children, empower them to talk about their feelings and ask questions. One of the best ways we can do this is by providing time and space for them to talk to us. One way to start the conversation is to ask them what they have seen or heard and then respond appropriately by considering their age, emotional readiness, and their personality. If they are very sensitive or get upset easily, then tailor your comments as needed. We also don’t always have to have all the answers. If you don’t know an answer, use the opportunity to look it up together. 

Another way we can help empower them when the news is tough is to find a way to help or get involved. For Ukraine this could be putting care packages together or writing letters of support. For older children, it could be participating in a local march or going to a benefit concert. Teaching them that although on a map Ukraine is far away, there are things we can do here to help. This sense of action or support makes it feel a little less scary. 

For teens who by nature can be a bit self-absorbed, it is important to make sure they understand what is happening and that there is big world out there. They may feel the impact of gas, if they drive and pay for their own gas, but it is also important for them to be able to talk about how this compares to other conflicts in history. It can also be a teachable moment on empathy. Ask them to imagine how they would feel if their life was totally normal one day and the next, half of your family was fleeing the country and the other half was risking their lives to stay and fight. This can seem unimaginable to them but getting them to be aware of the bigger world around them is an important life lesson. 

Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]

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