Talking to Your Kids About War

Young girl visiting Vietnam Veterans Memorial
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Children born since 2001 have never known a country that wasn’t involved in a war. Fortunately, most children are far removed from the violence, but that doesn't mean parents shouldn't talk to children about the conflict. 

Children are likely to learn about war at some point from the media. And acts of terrorism can be much closer to home, which can make for even more complicated discussions with children.

How do you explain a bombing that killed innocent people? Or how do you answer questions about whether another 9/11 attack could happen again? Even though these conversations can be tough to have, it’s important to give kids age-appropriate information about war.

Terrorism and war are scary, even to adults. To a child who might not understand the facts or realize where the war is actually occurring, it’s terrifying. Even if you try to buffer your little one from seeing images of war, whether it’s on the television or elsewhere, you should keep the lines of communication open.

Strike up a Conversation With Your Child

While some families clearly sacrifice when a parent or other family member serve in the military, non-military families may be less inclined to talk to kids about war. But just because your family isn't directly affected by war right now doesn't mean you shouldn't bring up the subject. 

Talking about why some people intentionally hurt others and how that can lead to war is a complex topic. And for many children, it can be frightening and upsetting. After all, many of the concepts are likely in stark contrast to the messages you’ve been trying to teach your child about kindness, respect, and compassion.

Starting when a child is around 4 or 5, it’s important to be open to discussing the facts surrounding war if your child brings it up. However, do so in a manner that’s appropriate for their age.

For example, you could tell your kindergartener, “Some people in another country disagree on what’s important to them, and sometimes war occurs when that happens. The war is not happening near us, and we’re not in any danger.”

As a parent, it’s your job to reassure them that they're safe, as it’s vital that a child feel safe and secure. Starting a simple conversation can also be an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings your child may have.

If your little one isn’t interested in talking about war, then there’s no need to push it—she might not be concerned about it yet, and young children shouldn’t be forced into being aware.

Find out What Your Child Is Overhearing

To get an idea of what your child knows already, ask questions like, “Are any of your teachers talking about this at school?” or “Do any of your friends ever talk about this stuff?”

Your child may have heard bits of information and he may be struggling to make sense of things. Or he may have seen media coverage that you weren’t aware he was watching.

Learning what your child already knows can give you a good starting point for your conversations. Be a good listener and show your child that you're invested in hearing what he thinks.

Explain the Purpose of War

Your child will likely want to know why we are in a war. Keep your explanation simple by saying something like, “War is meant to prevent more bad things from happening in the future.”

You might also talk about how war is meant to protect certain populations. Make it clear that violence isn’t a good way to resolve the conflict but sometimes countries decide they need to start a war to keep people safer in the future.

Hold Back When Necessary

Typically, parents should be honest with their children. However, that doesn’t mean you need to overwhelm your child with unnecessary information.

Keep your discussions appropriate for age level and err on the side of caution—the last thing you want is for your child to come out of the talk feeling even more fearful of war. Don’t minimize the seriousness of war, but keep in mind that your child doesn’t need to know all the gory details of what’s going on.

Stick to the facts without talking too much about the scope of the impact. And don’t predict what might happen next or talk about how horrific things will continue to happen in the future.

Avoid Harmful Stereotypes

Talking about a certain group of people or a specific country could lead your child to develop prejudice. So be cautious with the statements you use when you talk about war and terrorism. Keep your focus on being informed and educated, as opposed to vengeance.

If you are going to share your opinions, talk about how you feel about the war in general. There’s a chance that you might not agree with the purpose of war or the act of military intervention. You can share that with your children, particularly if you feel that the rationale behind your beliefs is part of your family’s values.

However, once your child gets into his pre-teen and teen years, he might start sharing his own opinions about war—and you never know if they’ll line up with your ideas.

Try to respect your child’s views, even if you vehemently disagree, and refrain from arguing about it or expressing your views in an angry manner.

Watch Media Coverage Alongside Older Kids and Teens

It’s important to restrict media coverage for younger children. Watching upsetting scenes being replayed on the news, like a terrorist attack, could be quite traumatizing to preschool or elementary school children.

Turn off the media coverage when your child is around. Keep in mind that young children are often watching TV or looking over your shoulder even when you think they’re preoccupied with something else.

Tweens and teens are likely to catch some media coverage no matter how much you try to limit their exposure. They’ll see the front page of the newspaper at the grocery store or they’ll see the news on their tablets and smartphones.

You know best how mature your child is, and how much information they can handle. If she wants to see the news, though, or watch a movie set during wartime, and you think she can handle it, watch it together.

Encourage her to ask questions and, if you don’t know the answer, tell her that you’ll find out and follow up the next day.

Encourage Compassion

You might consider discussing military service and what it entails with your children. There’s a good chance they know someone from school that has a parent who serves, so you can talk about how it might affect that student’s family.

This is also a lesson in compassion, helping your child understand that a family who has a member overseas in a war may need a little extra help. Talk to your child about volunteering in activities that support military families; this can make your child feel like they’re making an impact.

You can also talk to your child about refugees who are fleeing war in another country and donate to causes that support them. Children often feel more secure and confident when they know there is something they can do to help.

Even a small act, like donating loose change to a charity that helps children in war-torn countries or making a care package for soldiers serving abroad, can go a long way toward helping your child feel like he's able to make a difference.

Point Out the Good People Who Are Helping

Although acts of terrorism and war are terrible, you can always find good people who are working hard to help others. Point out these acts of service and kindness to your children so they remember that even though there are a few bad people in the world, there are many more kind and loving individuals.

You might find some historical examples of times when people pitched in to help one another. There are many people who wanted to help the rescue efforts after 9/11, for example. There are also many examples of people helping individuals from war-torn countries.

You can also point out that there are many professionals who are working hard to care for others. Military personnel, government officials, police officers, doctors, and nurses are just a few of the people who help others during acts of war and terrorism.

Monitor Your Emotional State

Your child will learn how to cope with world events by watching how you handle issues. So be aware of how you respond to stress and how you communicate with others.

It’s normal to feel anxious about war and acts of terrorism. And while it’s OK to tell your child you feel scared, don’t burden your child too much with your emotions. Instead, focus on the steps you’re taking to proactively deal with your feelings in a healthy manner.

Keep an Eye on Your Child’s Distress

It’s natural for your child to feel anxious, confused and upset about the prospect of war. And it can affect some kids more than others.

Young children aren't able to verbalize their stress so be on the lookout for behavior changes such as difficulty sleeping, becoming extra clingy, reverting back to baby talk, thumb sucking or bed wetting.

Older children may express more fears about death or they may report persistent upsetting thoughts if they're distressed. Be on the lookout for preoccupation with war or terrorism as well. A child who keeps talking about it or one who wants to consume as much news as possible may be struggling to manage his anxiety.

Children with mental health issues or those who have experienced traumatic circumstances may be particularly vulnerable. Children of refugee or immigrant families may also be more likely to experience anxiety and distress.

If your child seems to have trouble coping with the images he’s seen or the information he’s heard, talk to your child's pediatrician. A physician can assess your child and make appropriate referrals to mental health professionals if needed.

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.