March 4, 2022

When children feel anxiety about news of war

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They see what’s happening in Ukraine on social media and the news.

Eight-year-olds scrolling TikTok may catch scenes of artillery fire between clips of cat videos. Teens may find themselves talking about the war in Ukraine both in class and after school.

While the news is frightening, there are actions a parent or caregiver can take to help minimize the war’s potentially negative mental health impact on children of all ages, according to Katie Spencer, Psy.D, HSP, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and pediatric psychology at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Getting a handle on social media access is a key first step, Spencer said.

“Kids today could be exposed to media from the moment they wake up until they go to bed,” she said. “It takes some management to make sure they are not bombarded with frightening images.”

As parents and caregivers, we know it’s difficult, if not impossible, to control every message or image that children take in. But for preschoolers and grade-schoolers, it is more important than ever to learn about and manage those online experiences to the degree possible.

“Consider the age of the child when deciding whether to allow them to watch the news,” Spencer said.

Talking about war with young children

Images of violence may have a strong impact on young children, who are less clear about what is fiction versus what is reality. They may not understand the war’s context, or that it is taking place far away, in Europe, so when talking about war it’s important to try to answer any questions they may have. 

“Kids under the age of 7 or 8, they may not be very aware. But if they ask, be simple with the answers,” Spencer said.

Even those who spend little time on social media will hear some news of the Ukraine conflict. “When they see images of people huddled in the basement of hospitals, it brings the situation closer to home, even though we are safe and far away.”

A good approach to take with older children

Parents of older teens should take a more proactive approach, she added.

“With high-schoolers, start the conversation yourself if they don’t come to you about it,” Spencer said. “You really want them to know you are someone they can go to with questions and you are willing to help them.”

High school students can better assimilate information and the relative degree of threat from the Russia-Ukraine war, but they also understand human ramifications. “They likely either know someone from Ukraine or know someone who knows someone,” Spencer said.

Before diving in with answers or reactions, the psychologist advises adults to do a check-in on their own feelings and emotions, such as anxiety.

“It’s fine to validate how you are feeling, too,” she said. “Be ready for that conversation with your child and share your feelings, but don’t overshare.” Keeping a cool head and thinking ahead about your answers and discussion topics can help ease tensions.

Even better, let your children know there is something they can do to assist Ukraine and their European neighbors.

“It’s helpful to focus on the helpers by asking: ‘What can we do, even though we are far away?’ ” Spencer said.

Some options: donating to refugee groups, volunteering with relevant nonprofits that work to provide humanitarian relief, or participate in other supportive activities to provide a positive outlet. One creative example: a Nashville-area sweet shop baked a special cookie to help raise money for a Ukrainian charity, Spencer said.

“It shouldn’t be difficult to find a way to help.” 

After-Hours care for your child

Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but we recommend calling your pediatrician first.

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