Skip to main content.

Talking to Kids about Conflict, Tragedy, or War

If my child isn’t bringing war up, should I talk about it with them?

Whether through media, conversations with their friends, or overhearing conversations by adults, children are exposed to news of global crises, including war, disasters, and tragedies. These topics can be scary for children of all ages, especially if they do not fully understand that they are safe and that someone will protect them. It is important for your child to be able to discuss emotions such as fear or sadness that they could be experiencing. Child development experts recommend that you bring up these topics with your child. These conversations about “tough topics” with your child are invaluable – they build a sense of trust, safety, well-being, and ability to manage difficult feelings. How you bring up these incidences and how much you explain will vary depending on your child’s age. The younger the child, the less detail is necessary. In all cases, it is important to follow your child’s cues about how much information is enough, and how much may be too much.

How do I explain “war” to my child?

You can start by asking your child what they already know or think, especially if they have brought up the topic themselves. For this younger age group, a simple explanation with an emphasis on safety is key. Depending on their level of development between ages 2-7, children may not be able to separate their own experiences from content they see on TV or a discussion that someone else is having. As a result, they may not be able to understand whether they are safe or not.

Ages 2-4

You can say something like, “There are grown-up leaders in faraway places who don’t agree on something so the people in their countries are hurting each other. It can be scary and hard for the people who are in the war. Wars can happen all around the world. We are far away, and even though it may feel scary, we are safe here.” If war or a conflict is nearby, you can say something like, “It is okay to feel afraid. We can talk together about any feelings you have. It is my job to keep you safe, and I will protect our family.”

Ages 5-7

You can use statements similar to the above, but at this developmental stage, children have a better idea that the world is a large place with countries that are far away and exist outside of themselves. Kids may also grasp the concept that countries and other places have different leaders who interact with each other. In this case, you could show your child a world map and point out where the conflict is (as well as where your family is located) while naming the leaders and countries involved. With this age group, it is also essential to make sure your child knows they are safe and that you will protect them.

What do I do if my child asks - “Why are people fighting or hurting one another?”

You can start by asking your child what they already know or think, especially if they have brought up the topic themselves. For this younger age group, a simple explanation with an emphasis on safety is key. Depending on their level of development between ages 2-7, children may not be able to separate their own experiences from content they see on TV or a discussion that someone else is having. As a result, they may not be able to understand whether they are safe or not.

Ages 2-4

You could say something like, “Sometimes when grown-up leaders do not agree on something, they end up fighting for different reasons. They could be fighting over the rules in their country or wanting a part of a different place or country. Another reason they could be fighting is over something special a place has, like money. Some leaders or groups may not be nice and not want to share something; other times, the leaders can’t make up using their words, so they fight instead. When we disagree about things with our family and friends, it is important that we use our words to talk about it.

Ages 5-7

With your 5-7 year old, you can say something similar to the above script, while adding more detail on the specific conflict, such as reasons why it is happening, “A leader in X country wanted another country’s land, so they hurt people in that country to get it.” At this developmental stage, you can explain that sometimes different people and leaders have different ideas about who is right and wrong in the war. As always, while you talk with them, make sure your child knows they are safe with you, and that it is normal to feel scared or sad about it.

Should I show or hide pictures or news clips from my child?

Ages 2-7

You can show them pictures of people and leaders in the involved countries, but it is not a good idea to expose them to images or videos that appear too scary (specifically pictures that include blood, tanks, weapons, people who are hurt, and other related images). It’s okay to share pictures of people who may look sad or scared along with pictures or videos of others trying to help.

The younger your child, the fewer photos or news clips they need to see. For instance, you may show a 2-4 year old a picture of people leaving the country, or finding new places to live. But for a 5-7 year old, you could provide a few more photos that may help explain the story around the situation (for instance, the leaders involved in the conflict).

Picture books can also help explain these concepts. Please see our list in the resource section below.

Should I express to my child what I am feeling as a result of the crisis?

Everyone feels scared and worried – and it’s good to share that with your child. It’s a good opportunity to explain to your child that having big feelings is okay, and that there are many ways to manage and express feelings. You can model positive ways you may be coping and demonstrate strategies you use. When explaining your emotions, it is important that you try expressing them without becoming dysregulated or tearful yourself (even though it is OK for this to happen without your child present!).

Ages 2-4

Use simple emotions! You can talk about feelings in the body (sad, tummy hurts, happy, etc). You could say something like, “When I learned about what happened, I felt very sad. My tummy hurt too. It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. How do you feel?”

Ages 5-7

At this age, a child can tolerate more complexity, so you can share the concept of having multiple feelings at once, as well as more complex emotions such as surprise, disappointment, or gratefulness. You could say something like, “When I learned about what happened, I felt sad and surprised that it was happening. My tummy hurt too. I also felt grateful that I was here and safe with my family. It is ok to feel sad and grateful at the same time, even if it feels a little funny.”

For both age groups, you can practice skills you use when you feel the emotions discussed. Examples could include deep breathing, talking about it, drawing or writing down what you are scared about or grateful for, taking a bath, or doing something to help.

How can I help my child feel empowered rather than powerless in situations like this?

When there are shocking, scary, and sad events happening around the world, it is common for children and adults alike to feel powerless. You can teach your child to use their sadness or feelings of powerlessness to be a global citizen – not as a solution to take away any of the ‘bad’ feelings, but in order to make a difference in the world.

You could say something like, “Wars can happen in different places, and sometimes people have to leave their home or get separated from their family and friends. When people have to leave their country and find a new home, they are called ‘refugees.’ They can feel sad when this happens, and we can feel sad for them too. Since we are safe, we can do things to help the people in the war feel safer and to be with their families – like send them food and money or make them feel welcomed if they arrive in our country. It’s important that no matter what the people in the war look like, that they are treated fairly.”

You can also use the opportunity to take action together and involve your child in the process. With the 5-7 age group, you can provide more detail on what the help will do and give them a slightly larger role in the process. For example, if you are writing letters, you may let your 5- to 7-year -old lead the process of coming up with something to say and writing it down (with you steering as needed). With a 2- to 4-year-old, they may draw a picture and write a couple words that you can guide them through.

What are some resources I can use to explain these issues to my child?

Big Heart videos – ‘Noggins’ (empathy), ‘What Would You Do’ (empathy), ‘Where I’m From’ (identity), ‘Helping Others’ (helping), ‘Little Things Make the World Better’ (citizenship)

Resources

Books

Written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz

Written by Janice Cohn and illustrated by Gail Owens

Written by Margaret M. Holmes and illustrated by Cary Pillo

Written by Zoe Mulford and illustrated by Jeff Scher