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We often talk among ourselves about our country’s divisiveness and the need to seek unity and peace. But how do we get there? Lack of empathy, or the inability to understand different perspectives and values, has suddenly exploded, manifesting itself on the war in Ukraine. The historical roots of one country seem to be fueling the brutal invasion of another, despite their fierce opposition. Ongoing diplomatic efforts to reach consensus have not worked very well.
If this conflict is mind-boggling and emotionally unsettling for adults, how much more difficult is it for children to understand? Is the mental health of children affected by seeing or hearing about acts of war, terrorism or natural disasters? The answer is yes, and parents and other adults entrusted with young people’s care would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with established, well-researched psychological guidelines designed to help kids understand and cope.
To start, it is useful to understand the basics of child development. One of the first words toddlers use is “mine.” As their sense of self continues to develop, children begin to understand the perspectives of others and can sympathize with them. Empathy develops along with cognitive development, but may require exposure to affectionate parental models who assign importance to the feelings of others. By giving children experiences in which they develop empathy, we can better help them understand what others are experiencing and talk to them about how they feel about it.
It follows then, before talking to children about the war in Ukraine or other catastrophic events, caregivers should first assess what children already know. While keeping in mind the child’s developmental level and vocabulary, asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you know about (event)?” might be useful in helping them express themselves.
Children who have had direct exposure or were direct victims of a traumatic event can experience the highest emotional trauma. Factors to be considered in a child’s emotional history may be severe or prolonged exposure to trauma, previous trauma, individual or family mental illness, poor social support from family or friends, and ongoing stressors that might be as simple as moving to a new home or school.
With the persistent horror in Ukraine, parents and caregivers can begin by limiting the amount of time children are exposed to the news on television and other media outlets, or to adults discussing the war among themselves. It is likely that children and adolescents attending school will have heard about the Ukraine war from the media, social media their peers or teachers.
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To offer the best support, caregivers must approach children without preconceived ideas about what the child knows, thinks or feels. Even if children express unanticipated feelings and worries, what they share must be validated. It is important to offer comfort and reassurance. If children ask many questions, multiple conversations are in order. This helps children know their caretakers are open to discuss difficult issues with them.
Children who experienced previous trauma or loss may become sad, fearful, worried about different things or exhibit behavioral problems. Children in military families may worry for their loved ones, and those who have family or friends in Ukraine, Russia or nearby regions, may need additional support from their caretakers to engage in alternative activities that help everyone cope.
Above all, seek expert help if children’s fears increase or they experience problems sleeping, have nightmares or regress in their development.
Locally in South Florida, clinical resources in the community include the Goodman Center at Albizu University’s Miami Campus (305-592-7860), which offers low-cost psychological services to children, adults and their families in person or via telehealth throughout the state.
Irene Bravo is a licensed psychologist and professor. With an award-winning career spanning over 35 years and dozens of publications in the field of psychology, she currently serves as Dean of Academic Affairs and Director of the PhD in Human Services Program at Albizu University in Miami.