Tamsin Grimmer shares ideas about how to support and reassure children in early years settings…
War is a difficult concept for young children to understand and it can be hard to know if and how we should discuss war with them.
Should we try to shelter them from the situation by avoiding conversations about it or should we talk about it in a manner which our young children will understand?
Recent events have reminded me of times from my own childhood. Growing up during the cold war, I remember hearing about the hostility between the then Soviet Union and the USA in particular and lying in bed at night worrying about the things I’d heard. In my limited understanding of the situation, I often lived in fear.
We have all been shocked, horrified and upset by the devastating news images and stories coming out of Ukraine. Many children will be feeling frightened and anxious, and they may feel it will have a direct impact on their lives.
Even our youngest children may have heard adults discuss the events or may have seen images on the television or social media.
There will, however, be some children who do not know about the conflict and we need to be sensitive to the differing levels of information children will have heard.
It’s a good idea to find out what, if anything, children know about the conflict. We can do this through observing our children, noticing their behaviour and noting any changes, listening to their conversations and questions, and working out how they feel and what level of information they have about the situation.
Children need love and reassurance, they need to feel safe and secure, therefore hearing stories about war will be unsettling and frightening, regardless of their level of understanding.
War is a very difficult concept for children to understand and the reasons why countries go to war are even more difficult.
Remember that there will be groups of children who may be particularly vulnerable at this time, for example, children who have already experienced trauma, children who are refugees or who have lived experiences of violence and fighting.
Many children will have family members who live in Russia or Ukraine or neighbouring countries. The conflict will have a direct impact for these children, and we must ensure we remain sensitive to this at all times.
It’s really important that we practise compassion and are careful how we discuss the role of Russia. Ensure our comments do not add to hate-speech or discriminate against one group or another.
There is enough hate in the world already; our role is to love, be compassionate to everyone, and help our children feel safe and secure with us.
✓ Listen to children and answer questions honestly, using terms that are factual and avoid the potential for misunderstandings or stereotyping.
✓ Use correct language whilst remembering their age and stage of development, for example ‘war’, ‘fighting’, ‘dead’.
✓ Do not add to children’s anxiety and fears by listening to the news with the children present or talking to colleagues about the situation in their earshot. If children initiate a conversation about it, respond in language they will understand.
✓ Reassure children that they are safe – they rely on us for their feelings of safety and security. Don’t belittle their concerns but instead acknowledge children’s feelings and accept all emotions.
✓ Where possible, ensure that changes in your setting are kept to a minimum. Familiar surroundings can help a child to remain feeling safe and secure.
✓ Don’t worry if children ask the same questions over and over again. They are trying to reassure themselves and we must answer consistently to offer reassurance.
✓ Remain calm when discussing conflict – if you are feeling frightened yourself, this will come across through the discussion.
✓ If children use playful interactions to explore war and express their feelings, support this and use them as opportunities to discuss difficult concepts like death, remembering that young children do not yet have a full understanding of this.
✓ Share stories in which a character is involved in war or fighting, or provide opportunities for children to create stories and have their own narrative about it. Ensure these stories do not add to children’s worries but alleviate concerns.
✓ Monitor children’s levels of wellbeing and anxiety. Remember that children’s behaviour may regress after experiencing trauma. We must offer understanding, reassurance and security, and not chastise these behaviours. They will pass with time as the child feels more safe and secure.