How parents can talk to children about war

When there is a war, it can be scary not only for parents, but also for children. It is therefore all the more important that parents also talk about serious and difficult topics with their children – sensitively, age-appropriately and adapted to the child’s individual stage of development. We asked the pedagogical director of the KIMI crèches, Barbara Schaffner, how this can be done and what tips she has for parents of young children.

Barbara Schaffner, in your experience, how do children deal with issues like war?

This can vary greatly and depends on various factors. These include the age of the child, and also the way they were confronted with the topic. So, for example, were they made aware of the topic on social media or via news on TV or the internet, or is the topic present in the family? Also relevant are the child’s level of knowledge and their various concerns and fears. With older children, from around kindergarten age, parents can find out what children actually imagine as a “war”. In this way, they can also better address their concerns and fears. 

Are issues like war also present in the day care centre? How do you currently experience it?

For the children we care for in the crèche, war is not very present due to their age. For the older children in the after-school care centre, this is strongly related to direct or indirect confrontation in everyday life – via social media, pictures or posters, via conversations in the family, etc. Here, conversations arise and questions come up, for example during lunch. The caregivers take the children’s questions seriously and pick them up according to their level of knowledge.

At what age should one start talking to children regarding the topic of war?

It is important that parents avoid or at least control the children’s media consumption on the topic of war. They should not force the topic onto the children, but respond to any questions the children may have, ask open (return) questions and thus pick up on prior knowledge and concerns. For example, with questions like “What do you imagine “war” to be?”, “How do you think war can happen?” or “Do you have any idea what it takes for peace to happen?” The topic of war is very abstract for young children. Therefore, it is important that parents do not overwhelm them with their explanations or scare them even more. Parents should guide their children individually depending on where they are in their development.

What are your top five tips on how parents should discuss the topic of war with their children?

These points are particularly important to me: 

  • Adapt the language according to the developmental level of the child. Listen, ask questions and use simple, understandable terms that do not overwhelm the child. Pay attention to a positive choice of words and refrain from speculation and conjecture. 
  • Take the child’s questions seriously and answer them in a way that is appropriate for the child. Asking the child counter-questions can help it to come up with its own answers.
  • If you see war situations in a drawing, talk to your child about it, but be careful not to judge the content.
  • Talk about peace as well as war to give the child perspective and hope. 
  • Give the topic only a limited, defined period of time in daily life. For example, do not discuss war before going to bed.

Should parents involve children in helping them (e.g. donating money or clothes / toys)? What about participating in peace rallies?

If a child is afraid of war, the parents should talk to each other to find out what the fear is based on and work out possible solutions together with which the family can become active. For example, you as a family can take part in a collection campaign for affected families, take in refugees, etc. Children should not be misused in these actions. Children should not be involved in actions that do not make sense to them.

If a child is traumatised, it helps to have a stable environment with people who provide security and orientation, and therapy should be considered. 

Should parents be open about their own feelings to the children? How can they play down their own worries without transferring them to the children?

Parents who are directly affected have the responsibility not to burden their children unnecessarily with their own anxiety or even to transfer it to the children. However, this does not mean that the issue should be completely ignored: The children need a child-friendly explanation from their parents for any emotional outbursts. This way they can categorise them correctly. Otherwise the children may feel insecure.

Should you also watch the news with children? From what age can this be useful?

There are programmes that present news in a way that is suitable for children (more on this in the info box). These formats are definitely preferable to other news programmes. However, there is no specific age at which it makes sense to watch the news. Whether the child is ready for it depends more on their individual emotional, cognitive and social development. 

Parents can find valuable additional information here in German (perhaps you can also source child friendly news programs in your own language): 

  • SRF Kinder News explains topics from Switzerland and the world in a child-friendly way
  • ZDF logo! presents news for children and young people
  • “Die Sendung mit der Maus” (The Program with the Mouse) explains current topics in an age-appropriate and sensitive way and offers lots of tips and information for parents on its “elephant page”
  • The children’s encyclopaedia offers child-friendly explanations for parents who sometimes lack the right words to answer children’s questions
  • Wir Eltern and Fritz&Fränzi offer advice, expert tips and information on current topics

Help for parents is also available from Elternnotruf or Pro Juventute, who also provide a lot of information on serious topics such as war or climate change.
Parents who are somewhat overwhelmed with their own feelings can learn to recognise and put a label on their emotions at . 

How do parents best deal with children coming into contact with “fake news” or wild speculation (e.g. from peers or parents of other children) and passing it on? 

Here it is up to the parents to educate their children. They should give the child the opportunity to take on other perspectives and support him or her in forming his or her own opinion. 

What should professionals pay attention to when caring for children who have had to flee their home country? 

A lot of time must be allowed for settling in. The child must be given the opportunity to build a secure and reliable bond with their caregiver. In addition to building a relationship with the child, it is essential to gain the trust of the parents. An additional hurdle here is often the language and cultural background. It requires a lot of understanding and openness from all sides. The caregivers observe the child, perceive its needs and support it individually in its development. In this way, they make a valuable contribution to integration. A regular exchange with the parents is also particularly important.

Barbara Schaffner is the pedagogical director of KIMI Krippen AG and is also a member of the board of KiQ (independent quality daycare centres ), where she works to further develop the conditions in childcare for children, families and staff. As a pedagogical director, it is particularly important to her to focus on the curiosity of the child and to enable children to discover the world in a playful way.