‘A delicate balance’: experts’ tips on dealing with Ukraine anxiety in children | Children

Funmi Alder, the headteacher of Bearwood primary school in Berkshire, is waiting with bated breath to see if her students return from their half-term break next week devastated and convinced that world war three is about to break out in the UK.

Alder has got her teachers on the lookout but it is the year 5s and 6s she is most anxious about. “They studied world war two in the autumn term,” she said. The comparisons, she fears, could be too much for some. “Their class teachers can discuss the current events as a class, and some children can share any anxiety then.”

Over at the offices of The Week Junior, editor-in-chief Anna Bassi is struggling to decide how to explain the invasion to its readers, aged eight to 14, in next week’s issue. “We will need to tell our readers clearly and as calmly as we possibly can exactly what is happening and what has led to this situation,” she said.

One of the things Bassi places great emphasis on is providing context. “Without that, it could feel to a child as though these things just come out of nowhere and that could be terrifying for them,” she said.

But Bassi is also concerned that children could be getting information from unreliable, unfiltered social media outlets. “We will definitely advise them where the reputable places are to seek information from and tell them that if they’re anxious, to talk to adults and not dig further into possibly anxiety-inducing news sources that will exacerbate their fears.”

Prof Vivian Hill, the director of University College London Institute of Education’s educational, child and adolescent psychology training programme, said parents had very little control any more about how their children accessed knowledge about the outside world.

“In a modern society, it’s so difficult to shield children from anything,” she said. “Today’s children are more aware of the conflict in Ukraine than any previous generation’s children would have been because of 24-hour rolling news and social media.

“Even if parents try to shield their children at home, they’ll see it on their smartphones or hear about it in playground from other kids,” she said. “But whatever children are hearing outside the home, parents need to make sure they’re also getting accurate information and that it’s in context.

“There is, however, a delicate balance between informing children, and feeding into their anxieties by talking about it too much.”

Judith Wenban-Smith, a forensic psychologist with a special interest in families, said parents should keep a close eye on their children’s anxiety levels as the invasion continued.

“Every bomb will generate yet more headlines, and politicians will respond with ever more aggressive talk,” she said. “The problem is that in the past two years, children have learned that the world is a dangerous place and that bad things can and do happen close to home because of Covid.”

Mike Hughesman, a former principal educational psychologist for Service Children’s Education, said: “Facebook flashed something up at me just today about the risk of a nuclear attack in the UK.

“Parents need to tell anxious children that the world has been in situations like this before and they’ve been resolved. They also need to emphasise, perhaps with the use of a map, how far away this conflict is to them.”

Hughesman divides children into two groups. Those younger than seven, who are still in the “monsters in the cupboard” phase, need to be soothed then distracted with the continuation of everyday routines. Older children, however, need reassurance through information and context. “Talk to them about the Bay of Pigs and other conflicts. Tell them that people had the same fears and anxieties then but those crisies blew over,” he said.

Dr Jeremy Swinson, an educational psychologist who has worked with the government, recommended that concerned parents try a cognitive behavioural therapy approach to help anxious children.

“The first stage is cognition: discuss exactly why they’re anxious and give them the specific information they need to put those anxieties into perspective,” he said.

The second stage is behavioural. “Teenagers love a campaign,” he said. “Help them to displace their worries by getting involved with a local charity that’s working to help those in Ukraine.”