How do we talk about Ukraine? Engaging with young people over the war

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues and the international crisis grows, students will be filled with questions and concerns. Just how should school staff approach these challenging conversations? Dr Stephanie Thornton looks at the likely impact of the war on young people and what we can say when they ask about it


Black news for some time now: climate change, the ghastly pandemic, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The young are negatively affected by adverse news cycles like this (Douglas et al, 2009; Otto et al, 2007; Whalley & Brewin, 2007). Whether too young to understand much, or old enough to have some insight, terrible news creates anxiety in the young, in some cases amounting to serious problems of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety is greatest in those directly affected by the adverse events reported, but a percentage of individuals (maybe 5%) with no exposure other than through reportage in the media suffer anxiety severe enough to amount to a clinical diagnosis of PTSD.

The more vivid and dramatic the reportage, the more extensive and intensive that reporting, and the more similar the victims are to ourselves, the greater the anxiety in the young.

The current wall to wall coverage of the Ukraine crisis, news of child deaths, graphic images of destruction, heart-breaking testimonies from Ukrainians in crisis is maximally likely to provoke distress in the young. Beyond sympathetic horror, the question in many young minds will be: “Could this happen here?”

Research on how we judge probability (Kahneman et al, 1982) identified “the availability heuristic”: the more vividly memorable something is, the more likely we think it is to happen. Even children in the primary age range think this way (Thornton, 1996). And then, threats of nuclear war are the ultimate bogeyman.


Anxiety in the face of war

Anxiety in the face of this terrible war is normal and healthy rather than evidence of mental health problems. In fact, not to be disturbed and anxious in the current situation would perhaps be a more worrying reaction.

A generation accepting current events in Ukraine and the ever-broadening threats from Russia with complete equanimity would present a fundamental challenge to much of the philosophy, morality and law that underpins our civilisation. But even appropriate anxiety can be noxious and disruptive.


So, what do we say?

What do we say when the young ask about the news? Children and teenagers obviously differ in how much they understand of the current news cycle, with children in the primary age range generally understanding less than those of secondary age, though there will be overlaps between the top of primary and the start of secondary.

At every age, there will be variation between families in exposure to and exegesis of the news. And individuals will vary in how resiliently they cope with stress (Ellis et al, 2017).

Our efforts to support the young must reflect those factors. But much advice is the same for all ages. Experts on communicating with the young (for example, Gilmour & Hohnen, 2021) offer the following advice:


Don’t offer false reassurance

Whatever the age of the child, but especially with older children and teenagers, avoid saying that everything is going to be alright or denying that there is a problem, unless you can guarantee that this is true, which currently, none of us can do.

Who knows what the future holds, when every prediction so far has failed (Putin won’t invade, Putin won’t target civilians, Putin would never shell a nuclear power station)?

The research strongly suggests that false reassurance is damaging (Thornton, 2019). It exposes the young to the risk of repeated spikes of stress, disappointment and fear as the reassuring words are falsified – a real probability in the present situation.

Worse, when false reassurance is exposed, the trust the young have in us is undermined. Whether age five or 15, the young need to trust us in moments of crisis. Losing trust in adults isolates and exacerbates anxiety. And besides: what message does any version of “it’s all alright” send, when what the young see in Ukraine, what they hear of the wider impact, is so very, very not alright?


Control your own anxiety

The young judge the danger from the level of tension and fear in the adults around them. The very young may not understand the issues, but still pick up on adult anxiety, and may be frightened by remarks overheard, whether understood or not.

Teenagers may have much more insight into the threats, but few have the experience to judge how dangerous things really are, and so they too judge how much to be afraid on the basis of adult reactions.

By far the best support we can give the young in the current situation is to carry on as calmly as possible. Hard to be completely calm when events are alarming – but calm is good for us all.

It is hard to imagine any situation, however desperate, when calm is not the best response. Studies of who survives and who doesn’t in facing disasters (in the mountains and forests and at sea) unfailingly find that those who can stay calm do best (Gonzales, 2004).

And by being calm ourselves, we signal to the young that there is no need for extreme reactions, and we offer a role model for resilient coping in frightening situations.


Manage exposure to the news cycle

Unless one is prepared to ban all television, radio, internet and go back into severe lockdown (or back in time!), protecting even the youngest children from the news cycle is impossible these days.

Children talk to their peers and most of those peers will not have been protected from the news. No matter what we say, young people are going to use social media, search the internet and see the vivid reportage. They are going to be constantly exposed to the news, and to their peers’ reactions to it. We can’t stop exposure to the news, so the best we can do is try to manage the impact of that exposure.

At all ages through the school years this is best done in collaboration between schools and families. Could parents with young children avoid the news or use radio until the children have gone to bed? Radio removes the visual imagery which plays a key role in generating anxiety.

Can parents ask their teenagers to share the news broadcasts they are watching, the social media covering the crisis, and discuss with them what is being shown? Can they ask their children: “How true is this, who says, what implications does it have, how can we check?”

The ability to critically evaluate the news, to put it in perspective, is a core life-skill best developed by collaborative discussion, supporting the young in working to interpret information rather than simply telling them what to think.

Schools can offer this in classroom discussions. And then: can we also direct attention to good news, both in the everyday, and in the crisis – such as the extraordinary kindness of ordinary people in front-line countries to Ukrainian refugees? Not just a distraction, but a counter to despair: human nature is not all bad…


Ask questions, listen before you comment

Even on the front-line, the immediate concerns and anxieties of the young, those aged from five to 18, may be very different from adult perspectives (a six-year-old in Mariupol more worried about leaving her toys than death; an 18-year-old in Kiev worrying whether he will be able to kill another human being).

There will be variety in our young, too. Address their actual concerns, not what we assume those concerns to be, by asking questions. Such questions are better phrased as “what do you want to know?” rather than “what are you worrying about?” (Gilmour & Hohnen, 2021; Gilmour, 2022).

The advantages are clear: by focusing on what the young want to “know” rather than what they “fear”, we may direct the conversation away from overwhelming anxieties and toward a more manageable matter-of-fact.

A focus on knowledge can be empowering, a focus on fear is not. And then, establishing what it is that the young want to know ensures that the information we discuss with them in response is led by the young, and so likely to be both age-appropriate and pertinent for the individual.


Answering difficult questions

Of course, even the adult world does not know the answer to many questions (will someone drop a nuclear bomb, will this crisis last for years, how will this affect my life?). Better to say no-one knows the answer than offer false reassurance. But what to say?

These are existential questions about life and death in times of uncertainty that we in the West have not had to face for two generations. We’ve lived in a peace and prosperity unimaginable to our ancestors even in the mid 20th century. We’re facing existential questions in spades now, not just with the war in Ukraine, but with Covid-19 and the progressively apocalyptic announcements on climate change.

Even the very young suffer existential anxiety (Godwin, 2020), teenagers more so (John, 2020; Thornton 2021). None of our current problems look likely to end any time soon. The young will need tools to cope with existential challenge and uncertainty throughout their lives. Ideally, what we say now will foster those tools.


Resilience in the face of existential challenge

Our ancestors lived always with existential challenges and uncertainties at least as big as ours. How did they cope? Ancient wisdom, shared across all major religions and philosophies, offers some suggestions.

  • Focus on now, what we have in the present rather than on a lost past or uncertain future. What is possible now, what blessings do we have in this moment? As Tolle pointed out in his book The Power of Now (2010), the present moment is actually all we ever have. Recognising that can be a powerful liberation from fear and regret.
  • Reflect on what really matters: in a bunker under shell fire in Ukraine, would it matter whether my shoes are designer label? Wouldn’t it matter more, for example, that I am with family and friends?
  • Focus on others: be collective, rather than individualistic. Compassion and support for others is more life-giving than a focus on “me” or my possessions.

Serious crises tend to push us all toward that ancient wisdom. Even the youngest child can be encouraged to focus on the present, to count blessings in the moment. As children get older, grow into adolescence, discussions of fundamental values, of what really matters when the chips are down, of what you would fight for can offer older children and teenagers foundations for existential resilience based in values, not just for the current news cycle, but for life.

Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist, author and lecturer in psychology and child development. She is the co-author of Understanding Developmental Psychology (Macmillan International/Red Globe, 2021).


References

  • Douglas et al: Preparing for pandemic influenza and its aftermath: Mental health issues considered, International Journal of Emergency Mental Health (11), 2009.
  • Ellis et al: Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-based approach to resilience, Perspectives on Psychological Science (12): 2017
  • Godwin: The fast track intervention’s impact on behaviors of despair in adolescents and young adulthood, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, 2020.
  • Gonzales: Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why, WW Norton, 2004
  • Gilmour & Hohnen: How to have incredible conversations with your child, Kingsley, 2021.
  • Gilmour: Health Check, BBC radio sounds, March 3, 2022.
  • Kahneman et al (eds): Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Otto et al: Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms following media exposure to tragic events: Impact of 9/11 on children at risk for anxiety disorders, Journal of Anxiety Disorders (21): 2007.
  • Tolle: The Power of Now, New World Library, 2010.
  • Thornton: Developmental change in the use of relevant recall as a basis for judgments, British Journal of Psychology (87), 1996.
  • Thornton: Supporting pessimistic children and young people, British Journal of School Nursing (14,6), 2019.
  • Thornton: Rebuilding hope: Signs of depression and despair, SecEd, June 2021: https://bit.ly/35TtzMa
  • Whalley & Brewin: Mental health following terrorist attacks, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2007.
  • YoungMinds: Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs, 2020: https://bit.ly/3tHq6LY


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