‘They’re entitled to know the world isn’t always a safe place’: how to talk to your children about the permacrisis


Show caption What shall we tell the kids? Composite: Guardian Design; Getty Images; AFP; REUTERS; ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock Parents and parenting ‘They’re entitled to know the world isn’t always a safe place’: how to talk to your children about the permacrisis With the Ukraine invasion still raging, Covid cases rising again and the ongoing climate crisis, young people are picking up anxieties from social media and the playground. So what’s the best way to handle it? Gaby Hinsliff Wed 23 Mar 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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When John Adams and his two daughters settled down to watch a family film, he wasn’t expecting questions about bombing raids. But as they discussed what to watch, he spotted 12-year-old Helen scrolling through YouTube, looking for clips of air-raid sirens. She wanted to know what it would sound like, if the worst came to the worst.

“The question this morning at breakfast was: ‘What are we meant to do if there’s a nuclear attack?’” says Adams, a stay-at-home dad from Caterham in Surrey, who runs the parenting blog DadBlogUK. “That one just took me right back to my childhood, when these were real practical questions and everyone knew that you were meant to get under a table or a flight of stairs.”

He still remembers deciding that in the event of war, he would climb some high ground near his house to watch for incoming missiles. Now, he’s the one digging out maps to show nine-year-old Izzy where Ukraine is. The family has distant relatives in the country, who have now escaped to Hungary, which he thinks has made the war “that bit more real” for them.

Over tea or on the school run, and in those raw moments just before lights out, when children often disclose what’s actually troubling them, many parents now face questions they’re struggling to answer. A primary school teacher friend spent last week soothing pupils who were panicking that a bomb was about to drop on them; another father I know was floored by questions about whether he would be called up in the event of a world war.

While British children’s anxieties pale in comparison with what their Ukrainian peers are suffering under bombardment from Russian rockets, a pandemic that led to rising mental health problems among young people has left many parents wondering about the impact of living through seemingly apocalyptic times.

Books on helping children manage their emotions, from the TV presenter Ant Middleton’s Mission Total Resilience, to Tom and Joe Brassington’s picture book Bottled, are shooting up Amazon rankings. On Mumsnet, a mother questioning whether her daughter’s year 3 teachers should have talked to the class about Ukrainians “having to leave the country with their pets for fear of being shot by Russians”, triggered a lengthy debate (the consensus was that it was already the talk of the playground). School-gate chat revolves around whether to turn off the radio, and how to reassure children still reeling from lockdown that life isn’t about to turn upside down again.

“I’m a firm believer in lying to the children,” says Liz, a writer and parent of three children aged 12, 14 and 16. “We told them we’d all be fine and not to worry during Covid, which we all were. If something terrible does happen, I’ll deal with it as and when. While it’s all speculation, I am not putting that on them.”

But Julia, a mother of three teenagers aged 19, 17 and 14, regrets reassuring them when the virus first emerged in China that it was nothing to worry about; within weeks the boys were in lockdown, and their grandmother had died in a nursing home. “I learned then never to reassure when I couldn’t be sure. But I worry that after two years of pandemic stuff, we’re straight into even more scary stuff. It’s hard being a parent right now.”

Dr Jane Gilmour, a consultant clinical psychologist and author of the book How to Have Incredible Conversations with Your Child, recommends honesty. “If you say something that’s not true to your child it may harm their sense of trust, and when we’re in this period of time when things are feeling unstable then keeping a sense of stability is exactly what they need.”

But being honest, she stresses, doesn’t mean telling them everything you might know. For a young child, for example, you could use an analogy from everyday life to explain why war has broken out. “For example, if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, that’s not OK. Your description need not be lengthy.”

On questions parents themselves struggle with, such as whether this is the beginning of world war 3, she suggests not getting drawn into detail. “I’d stick to general statements: ‘Yes, this is a concerning issue, but the countries are working together to figure out what to do.’ Note that day-to-day life in the UK is going to be the same as it ever was.”

She also recommends parents establish what children have already heard and pitch things accordingly. “My first question would be: ‘What do you want to know?’ not: ‘What are you worried about?’ Older children might be interested in facts, like what does a sanction mean. Other children might want to know about safety, like: ‘Am I going to be OK?’”

With younger children, you could watch BBC Newsround together; if teenagers mention something they have seen on social media, don’t scoff but suggest looking at it with them. “It might be accurate, but it’s important to give them the skills of critical evaluation. If you tut and say: ‘Don’t bring me stuff you’ve seen on social media,’ you’ve lost your chance.”

And with anxiety-prone children, Gilmour says it’s all in your delivery. “The way you act, the tone of your voice, the speed that you talk at – all of these pieces of information help children figure out how they should feel about the world. If parents appear calm, then their children are more likely to feel calm.” Getting children to identify their emotions, or describing their emotions back to them (“I think you’re feeling anxious …”) can help them feel more in control.

For children spiralling from one what-if scenario to the next, she suggests encouraging them to write down or record their worries through the day and then set a daily check-in time to discuss them; help them recognise which fears have faded since writing them down, which are big and which are relatively small. “Worries are very often intense in the moment but disappear with time.”

Parents can also explain that while the news may seem bleak, life won’t always be like this, and that some, such as the psychologist Stephen Pinker in his book Better Angels of Our Nature, argue that the overall trend of human progress is away from violence.

Some families, however, are struggling with more complicated questions. Natasha emigrated from Russia to Britain two decades ago, and while her two sons were born here, her parents are still in Moscow. She has been showing her 14-year-old pictures of anti-war protests in Russia, explaining that many ordinary Russians abhor the invasion, while others support it only because they are fed propaganda.

“I had this chat to just help him with what to some degree we all have – this internal dilemma, something awful has been done, and it’s not in our names,” says Natasha, who spent much of the last week in tears. Her 19-year-old, a fluent Russian speaker, is grappling with similar questions of identity. “He was getting into some scraps online even before this, when people were saying anti-Russian things, and I’ve had to have conversations with him, asking him to tone it right down. I’ve had to explain that it potentially might have consequences for him.”

The boys haven’t seen their grandparents for three years due to Covid, and Natasha is worried about the impact of sanctions imposed for a war her parents don’t support. “I’m worrying whether my mum’s cancer drugs are going to be available in a couple of months, because they’re expensive. Two weeks ago, I could PayPal them some money, but I can’t any more because of sanctions. Their savings are halved in value because they’re in roubles and prices are going super-crazy for everyday stuff.”

As the editor-in-chief of a national news magazine, Anna Bassi regularly finds herself tackling distressing subjects. What makes that trickier is that the Week Junior’s readers are all children, aged eight to 14.

In one issue this month, she devoted five pages to Ukraine, covering everything from how economic sanctions work to pictures of refugees being welcomed in Poland, along with posters to colour in. Following careful consultation with parents and teachers about what fears children are expressing, it also tackled Vladimir Putin’s threat to put nuclear weapons in a higher state of readiness. “One mother told us that her son had said: ‘I’ve heard that Russia has weapons that will melt your skin and kill us all.’ Some of it is absolutely heartbreaking,” says Bassi.

So the magazine explained that Putin was trying to send a message to the west, but that didn’t mean nuclear weapons were going to be used, and that adults were working to stop that happening. It also highlighted ways children could help, such as fundraising for refugees or writing to their MP.

But Bassi stresses that whether she’s covering war or climate change – the magazine avoids the phrase “climate crisis”, judging that it can heighten anxiety for kids – there’s a delicate balance between giving children constructive things to do and overloading them with responsibility. “There’s a lot of talk about this amazing generation of children who care so much and are going to save the planet and I strongly feel that the burden shouldn’t all be on their shoulders. It’s really important to demonstrate that there are adults whose job is to prevent climate change too.”

Like Adams, Bassi grew up in the 80s under the threat of nuclear war, and doesn’t think the world is necessarily a scarier place now than it was then. The difference, she argues, is that “children are exposed to more of it because of social media”. With her own children, 12 and 16, her priority is putting what they have heard elsewhere in context. “I think there’s a real danger of allowing them to build a picture of world events on overheard snippets of information.” The magazine’s formula is to provide facts, explain the context, but then move quickly on to what’s being done to help.

It’s an approach Michael and his partner have used with their two sons, who they adopted aged three and one, just before the first Covid lockdown. Adoption involves discussing difficult emotions openly, he points out, which was unexpectedly good training for talking about a deadly virus followed by a war. They have explained it as a bully country attacking a smaller one.

“I still don’t really know what language to use, except to think back to the TV they like: superheroes and rescue missions. So we talk about rockets flying through the skies and buildings on fire, and then focus on the rescue efforts of Ukrainians to ‘save the day’ and get people safely out,” he says. “It’s our job to make them feel safe in their new home, but they’re entitled to know that the world isn’t always a safe place. Sadly, they experienced that themselves in their previous life.”

What the past two years have brought home to many parents is the sobering realisation that we can’t protect children from everything. There was no hiding the pandemic from toddlers once playgrounds were locked and they couldn’t see their grandparents. It’s hard to shield teenagers from a war when TikTok is full of video footage from Kyiv.

Gilmour points out that living through uncertain times can help children acquire the tools to deal with shocks in adult life. “One of the things we have got to develop as parents is ways of managing uncertainty,” she says. “I’m not saying this is an easy period in family life. But it’s an opportunity for families to say: ‘This is a concerning time, but we’re going to keep calm and carry on.’” Even if, sometimes, we’re doing so with fingers crossed.

Some names have been changed. For more information on how to talk to children about war, visit Unicef and Save the Children.