Explaining War and Global Conflict to Young Children

When war and military events occur in our world, we are all impacted – including our children. How do we answer young children’s difficult questions about war? How do we keep our children emotionally safe while also encouraging them to be empathetic, compassionate, socially aware individuals? How should we respond when children act out violent themes and war in their play? In this webinar, we’ll tackle these questions and more with our early childhood experts.


Claire: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today for our webinar. We are here today to discuss a really important and very current topic, "Explaining War and Global Conflict to Young Children." I feel really privileged to be here to talk about this with my panelists … I am joined today by two of my very, very smart colleagues. Rachel, would you like to introduce yourself?

Rachel: Hi, everyone. Thank you, Claire. I am Rachel Robertson. I lead the education and development department here at Bright Horizons. And the simple way to describe my work is if you are in a center or school, I am thinking about how you learn, whether you are 2 months old or 2 years old or 72 years old. So we support the teacher and leader professional development, as well as the work Claire does with families, and the curriculum and education in the classroom. And all of that requires a deep knowledge and understanding of early education and brain development. And we're gonna talk about some of that today, what really children are thinking about, what's happening in their brains, and what's important and healthy for their development. The other part of my expertise and experience that is really relevant for today is that I'm an author and I write about social-emotional topics, resilience, growth mindset, whether it's a resource or whether it's a children's book.

But I started writing by creating a deployment journal for kids when I... I'm from Minnesota, but I got myself to San Diego because I was in a military family. And when I was experiencing and my kids were experiencing a deployment with, my husband was deployed, I saw a lot of challenges and opportunities to help children and help children's families with a difficult experience. So my very first book I published was a children's journal about how to process those tough emotions and those experiences, and help adults think about how to respond to children. So right on this topic. And then it created a series of journals. So there's one for spouses and there's one for parents as well of the service members. And that morphed into a lot of other writing.

So then also as you're hearing me speak, you're knowing that I have the personal experience of having lived through the challenge of being in a military family and experiencing deployments, and experiencing having a family member in a high amount of conflict, and how to manage that with two young children. So, I'll be bringing all of that expertise and experience and sharing some of my struggles as well, because just because I know about it doesn't mean I got it all right all the time. So I'll share all that with you today and hopefully help you feel prepared and more confident to have these conversations and answer these questions you're getting from these little people. And Rosalind has some similarities, but also some really unique expertise and experience as well, so I'll turn it over to her.

Rosalind: Hey, everybody. Thank you so much, Rachel and Claire, for having me here today. My name is Rosalind Johnson and I am a regional manager in the Atlanta Metro area. I've been with Bright Horizons for 10 years and I've served in the early childhood education community for 20 plus years. I always like to say I am that non-traditional candidate that someone would wonder, how did she ever get into early childhood education? I graduated from Northwestern University and immediately went into the military. So I've served in the U.S. Army. I was a military intelligence officer. I was also the wife of a military member, and I am what you would call a military brat. My father retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, so I moved around a lot and had a lot of experience in deployments and moving and change, not only as a child, but also as the wife, and also as a member.

So I'm really excited about having the opportunity to bring that expertise today. And I say expertise, but if any of my children were on here, they would kind of say, "Hmm, I don't know about that, mom." And then I also, from my experience with Bright Horizons, I am over several of our community and client base centers, and so I help our local leaders in developing strategies to support the families and children that we serve, as well as the staff that we serve. So I'll be bringing a little bit of that background as well. And I just wanna thank Rachel for the wonderful tools and resources that she presented and talked about for military families. I have a heart for military families as the sacrifice is not just the soldiers, but it's also the extended family member as well. So, thank you.

Claire: Thank you both so much. I think I probably speak for the entire audience when I say that you two are the ones that we want to be hearing from right now because you have so much personal experience. So I cannot wait to start this conversation. Really quickly, I just launched a poll on the screen for the audience. We really like to ask, before we dive into the content, we wanna just learn a little bit more about our audience. So if you all could tell us who you are parenting or caregiving right now, what are the ages? It should be a check all that apply. So I'll let that sit on the screen for just a minute while you all start filling it out. I think it launched. Hopefully, it did. It did. Okay. Great. Responses are rolling in. I'll give you all a few seconds to work on that.

: While you're taking a moment here, Claire. I'm gonna emphasize what, Rosalind just said it jokingly but I think it'll help us frame some of this conversation is that we often as parents when kids are little we're in the moment, we're just trying to get through the day sometimes, maybe the hour. But what we're doing is preparing these little people to be adults and we're developing a foundation for that in their future. So how we think about things like this, stress and trauma and how we respond to them and how we prepare them for that is part of that. So this is content that is not just about the moment we're in, but it's also about equipping your children with these lifelong skills, so when you are in our shoes and talking about your kids and, "Oh, we made it through," that you will feel that sense of intentionality about developing some of these important lifelong skills as well.

Claire: It's a really important point, Rachel, because even if they don't live through another military conflict like this one in their life, they will live through a difficult time in their life. That is a fact. We know for sure. So any resilience skills and social-emotional learning that we can lend them now will serve them later. Okay. Let's take a look at these poll responses. So not surprisingly, for Bright Horizons audience we have a lot of preschooler parents on today, and also some school-agers, as we call them, some elementary school parents, and also some... So we've got folks from every parenting phase, every part of the journey represented today. So we are gonna try to focus the majority of our content today on parenting those younger kids, but certainly, I think a lot of the strategies that are gonna be mentioned today will also serve elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, even high schoolers, and certainly toddlers as well.

So let's get started. Let's dive right into the content. Oh, sorry. Not right into the content. Really quickly, before we start the conversation, I want to put in a quick plug for one of our resources that I think, just in case you can't stay onto the very end, this is the resource that you wanna check out. It's called "What Happened to My World?" It is a book that is free for anyone to download. Anyone anywhere can download this guide. It was developed after 9/11 in response to the stress and anxiety that we knew children everywhere were experiencing. And there are pullouts in this book on different topics of stress, losing loved ones, homelessness, food instability, and specifically for this audience, what to do...how to talk to your children about military conflict and war. So if you scroll down on that page on our website, you'll see the section about war and military conflict pulled out. But I really encourage you to download the book and have it on hand. Like I said, difficult things happen, tricky times happen in every child's life, and this is a great guide for you to reference when you know your child's experiencing a little bit of stress or a lot of stress. Okay. Now...

Rachel: Claire, I just wanna mention quickly too, is that you said that that book was created after 9/11 and that is absolutely true, but this is a different version. There's been iterations over time, so this isn't specific to 9/11. There's been iterations made in other languages and for other parts of the world. This version is kind of event neutral, so we included a lot of guidance for many different things, which Claire was talking about. But I also wanna mention that this version is also fairly United States-centric. We did not attempt to make it an international resource. Most of the content will apply internationally, but we just wanna give that disclaimer. So if there is content in here and you're thinking, "Well, I live in this country and this doesn't apply to me," you would understand why.

Claire: Thank you for that clarification. Definitely. Oh, sorry. I went too far. So let's start with, I think the reason a lot of people came today, the reason a lot of folks showed up to today's webinar, which is just, how do we talk to our children about what's going on in Ukraine right now? It is stressful, there's a lot of images. I actually have three kids as well. They're 13, 12, and 8, and especially the conversation with my 8-year-old, I found really challenging. So, again, I'll echo what Rosalind said, even though I have a degree in child development, even though I think about kids all day long and the research and the evidence, I still found myself floundering when my 8-year-old asked me about this. So I was hoping we could just dive into this. Rachel, what do you do? How can you respond to these tough questions from kids?

Rachel: Yeah, I think the most important thing is to just start with yourself. So, you wanna be in a place that you're not reactive, and by being here, you're doing great things already because you're taking some action to get yourself ready to be thinking about this and processing it so you're not caught off guard. You know how you're feeling, you're recognizing your own emotions, and that's the most important thing to do here. Because there are, some of us, many of you have been through something that this experience in particular or another traumatic crisis type of experience will trigger something in you. And I'm using that word intentionally, whether it's conscious or unconscious, that will make you react. And what you want to do is respond intentionally, not be reactive. So checking in with yourself, how are you feeling? What does this topic do to you?

How emotional you are and centering yourself with that is very important. And if children ask you questions before you've done that, it's okay to say, "That's a really good question. I don't know that I can answer that yet. Let me do a little thinking about it and then let's talk about it again. Can we talk about it at bedtime?" So you don't drop the question, but you don't suddenly just start babbling on unprepared and bring all of your anxiety and stress and emotion to it as well, because they will pick up on that. It's also, you can start thinking about some real clear, concise language. And if you need to write it down and practice it, if you need to have a, like, kind of a way you wanna say something, that's fine. It's okay to do that.

We do that in a meeting, we do that for an interview. We can do that for a tough conversation with our kids. You don't have to be an expert in every moment and have something brilliant off the top of your mind. So you can say, you know, have something like, "Sometimes whole countries after a lot of talking still don't decide how to get along, and then they have militaries that fight each other." Just not emotional, very factual. That's something that you can be ready to say. So it's kind of finding your way to the facts and the information that's child friendly, and keeping the emotion out of that. You also wanna be really thinking about tailoring responses to that child. So the best thing you can do when a child asks a question is to say, "Tell me what you think. Tell me why you're asking this question."

I wanna know more about why that came from. "How did you hear that word? Where did you hear that word?" Not with anger, not with emotion, not with anxiety, but with real, true, genuine curiosity. Because sometimes a child will ask a question, often a child will ask a question, "Why are we in a war?" And you'll get it into, like, this geopolitical context, and they just wanna know, like, is their friend's dad gonna have to go the war? Because they've heard he's in the military. So what is their question? Why are they asking this question? What do they wanna know about it? What have they seen? So that's something to be really important to think about, to responding with a question, tell me more. Be curious, find out what your child needs in that moment. And that's what this conversation is about, meeting their need versus giving them all the information you have or bringing your emotions and feelings.

Certainly, you can bring your moral compass and your values to these conversations, but try not to lead there and get into an emotional conversation right from the beginning. And also maybe save that, come up with ways to talk about that depending on the age of the child. You could say also in your factual response, something like, "In our family, we believe in really helping people when they're in a crisis. What can we do?" And we're gonna talk about some ideas for exactly what you can do later in this webinar, but that's another thing, if you wanna start talking about your values, to talk about it in a way that...your values in action. Because that kind of obscure not really concrete way of thinking about family values and moral beliefs is real hard for young children to understand.

Rosalind: You know, Rachel, one of the things that you mentioned in there that I really loved was just the intentionality, but the intentionality in being an active listener. So it seems very different. When we talk about parenting, we're always wanting to be the pitcher in the game. We're gonna toss these teachable moments to our kids, but we really need to be the person who's catching what they are putting out, listening to what they're saying. And it's gonna look differently, even, you know, I noticed from the poll that you said we had some parents of some of the older children. So even in that respect, you know, the intentionality for what potentially they're exposed to, what they're hearing. So maybe you do become a thought partner with them and do some research, maybe you're recording news events and then watching them together and stopping in those moments and talking. So I love that it's a good time to have a plan and have processed through kind of what you're feeling first, and not processing when you're having the conversation.

Claire: Yes. Then comfort them.

Rachel: Right. Right. Yeah. That's really important, right? So the thing you were just saying too is good for all ages, but as kids get older, you can teach them, as we were talking about earlier, life skills. That kind of critical, analytical thinking to not themselves have emotional reactions and then behaviors, but to, like, what am I learning? What is the source of this information? What is it telling me? How can I learn more? Versus, oh, my gosh, using a lot of hyperbole and triggering a lot of emotions. And then behaviors that come from high emotions are usually difficult behaviors for all of us, for adults and for children. So we wanna help them learn how to not do that, and one of the ways is by helping them think before acting, and also modeling that.

Claire: I wanted to talk now a little bit about the kids in this scenario. So you're having this conversation, we've just talked about how you might be feeling and what words you can use and what reactions you can have. Rosalind, can you tell us a little bit about what a child's perspective might be during these tricky conversations?

Rosalind: You know, it's so interesting, we always are thinking from our adult minds and how we conceptualize things. We think potentially that children conceptualize in the same way, you know, but they don't always. So, some of these common questions of, could that happen to me? Will I always be okay? Will you be okay? They are simple questions, and they come from a place of a child, the basic need to feel safe and to feel secure. So when we're responding to them and knowing and understanding where they are in their perspective, in their understanding, we need to bring a calm presence and we need to provide that simple reassurance to them and let them know in that moment that, "I'm here, you're safe with me. Right now we're safe here in our home," and talk about, you know, the here and now, and provide that emotional climate where children feel okay to continue to ask those questions, and for you to have the answer.

And even if the answer is one that's steeped in, you know, expressing love, you know, verbally or physically, that is a good answer. And so, like Rachel was just saying, we need to get our feelings straight because our children need our strength in that moment. We need to be thoughtful and calm, and of course, making sure that our words, and, you know, our tone, and our body language expresses the safety and security that we want our children to fill.

Claire: Absolutely. Rachel, do you have anything you wanna add to that? About what children might need...?

Rachel: Yeah. It's a good question. I love what you just said, Rosalind, about children need our strength, because we don't maybe think about this all the time, but in a moment where children are stressed or feeling a little vulnerable, it's similar to us as adults when we're stressed and feeling a little vulnerable, it doesn't help when somebody else around us just joins right in and gets stressed with us. Maybe for a moment we're like, "Oh, good. It's not just me," or something like that, but it just accelerates the whole situation. It doesn't solve anything and it just builds the emotion and you get really upset and frustrated and it can go places that are really unhealthy. What you need is to borrow somebody's calmness and strength. And children don't have a lot of capacity. Even just their brain development does not allow them to manage emotions and to regulate behaviors and impulses the way adults can.

So in these times, they need to borrow that from us. And so, giving them our strength and our calm presence is what they need. They do not need us to bring them into a swirl of emotions. That is not a positive thing. Even if we're feeling that, modeling for them, how we manage that. And probably the number one thing I tell parents is narrate your process out loud so kids can hear what you're doing, because if you're silent, they're not learning from it. So if you're saying, "This is making me sad. You know what I'm gonna do about that? I'm gonna go for a walk. Would you like to join me?" So, instead of just saying, "Let's go for a walk," you've told them, "This is how I am managing this emotion. I'm recognizing this emotion and then this is what I'm gonna do about it."

So, really, modeling, narrating that for them. We know that children need, and we know there's a lot of research on it, coming from the pandemic reinforcing these findings, but also from events like 9/11 or Katrina, but all the way back to World War II and children in London during the Blitz. We can see that children that did relatively well after going through tough experiences like that had a few consistent things in their lives. Most important is secure, consistent relationships with adults. That's you. Consistent. You are going to be there, it doesn't mean you're there every day at the same... This is not a scheduled consistency. It is an emotional consistency. I can rely on you. I can believe in you. I can trust you to be there for me. That's number one.

And then two and three are kind of tied together. They need routine and ritual. Routine helps people, adults too, but children specifically, feel safe. I know what to expect next. My day is not disrupted. It's kind of gonna look the same. And this is advice would even be given to people that are having a disruption, people in Ukraine that are having a disruption in housing or they're displaced, it becomes even more important to stick to routines and rituals that help a child feel safe. So if you, for any reason, had a displacement, and your ritual at night was reading a story, you should do that if you at all possible can no matter where you are, because that will give children that sense of security and safety. And one other thing I just wanted to mention is, well, maybe two things, is, one is be real cautious of about the news.

And we get news and information from a lot of sources right now. We hear it, it's on televisions, there's televisions in every restaurant, it seems like now. There's the radio, there's podcasts, whatever you're listening to, your kids are absorbing that. And they can't differentiate that this is not the same news I heard two hours ago. It's new information for them. And it's actually hard on your brain too. So the more you listen to the same news stories, it makes your stress hormones go up. Even as an adult, you know, "Oh, I already heard about this." But if you have that addiction to 24-hour news or news in the background and your kids are hearing that, that's something they need you to protect them from because they can't... News is not for kids, and so they can't dissect it and they can't understand that it's the same story over and over, so it can raise stress hormones.

And it can give them adult information that they can't understand, they can't make meaning of it either. So it's not valuable and it can be harmful to them. So they definitely need that. And then the last thing I just say from adults is they need real respect that their questions matter and that their feelings matter. So if a child says, "I'm really worried about this," we would never wanna say, "Oh, you have nothing to be worried about." We don't wanna dismiss it. We wanna help them through it so that we would give of them the same respect we would want when we express an emotion, that we don't pass it off or tell them, "You shouldn't be worried. You're lucky. You should be happy with what you have." That sends a real strong message about their own feelings and if they're allowed to express them or not.

Claire: That's such a great point. I have one more slide here on this topic. In case we haven't emphasized it enough, this is something that I learned from one of our colleagues at Bright Horizons who used to be a teacher in a class in the early childhood education setting. And he said, "I tell my fellow teachers, you know, you create the weather in the classroom every day for your students." And now this is advice that I've adapted and I say in almost all of my workshops and webinars when I work with families and parents, I remind them. You create the weather in your home. And I find that sometimes overwhelming, but I mostly find it reassuring because it means that I do have some control over the general feeling in my home, right? The warmth and the joy and the love.

And there are gonna be stressful moments and they are gonna happen, but like Rachel said, narrating those stressful moments, "I feel really stressed out today. I feel sad. I just checked the news. I'm kind of upset about what I saw, but here's what I'm gonna do about it. I'm gonna go read my book for a few minutes. I'm gonna take a walk. I'm gonna pet the dog. I'm gonna, you know, go punch a pillow." Whatever I need to do to make myself feel better, I have control over creating that ritual and setting that example for my kids. So just another plug for all those things. I want us to shift...

Rachel: Yeah. And, Clare, I know we're gonna move on, but I just wanna point out something you said because I think it's important. And we did say, and maybe Rosalind's gonna jump in here too, is you don't have to get all this right. Like, stuff like this is high emotion. If I'm hearkening back to the days of when my husband was going on a really difficult deployment and during that deployment, I did not have my calm every day. I was not lending strength to everyone in the household every moment of every day. I knew what I wanted to do and I knew my intention, and sometimes I just said, "Oh, I was kind of grumpy this morning, wasn't I? Like, let's just all acknowledge that. And I'm sorry about that. I didn't manage my emotions very well."

Again, it's a narrating. Narrating when you've made a mistake and narrate when you get it right, but get it right most of the time and try for that consistency and really being intentional and thoughtful. We're not about perfection. There's no such thing as a perfect parent. It is about progress. And children seeing you make a mistake and walk through it and admit it is super valuable. You don't need to go around making mistakes on purpose to do that, but they're gonna happen. And it's also gonna happen with these emotions. So if you have a little storm cloud once in a while, just work your way through it. And I'm sure Rosalind did it as well many times.

Rosalind: I know. I love this analogy, well, and thank goodness nobody on here could, you know, think back and see me in Walmart 20 years ago because there had been some moments. But creating the weather in your home, I love it, but when you think about the weather, we think about forecasting. And so, going back to the theme, I think the common thread of intentionality, if we know there are certain things that are coming up, if you are a military family and you know there's a deployment coming up... If you know, there's something stressful happening at work that's going to impact how you are feeling and potentially put you in a tsunami, preparing at home and recognizing that, taking that time to decompress, setting your children up for the transition of a deployment or a family member going off to a conflict. Anything that's going to trigger emotions or escalate feelings, if we can anticipate that and prepare for that, that's another level of skill-building as far as their capability in understanding their emotions that will help them and help your household.

Claire: Absolutely.

Rachel: We really go for it with that analogy. The weather, it's good. Yeah, it's a good analogy for the whole thing.

Claire: I suggest, I'm a big fan of post-it notes. I have one on my computer here that says you create the weather. If you have a moment, you can put it on your fridge, you can put it on your bathroom mirror just to remind you that you create the weather. I'm gonna pivot. I went too fast. I'm gonna pivot, in the interest of time, over to war and weapon play. We have received questions from families about this in the last few weeks, but that's not even the first time. This is something that happens, that we see children doing even when there's not a war or global conflict happening. So I was hoping we could talk a little bit about this. Rachel, do you wanna tell us how parents should handle this when they see it happening?

Rachel: Yeah. This is a really common question, and I had a aha moment about this early in my career when I was the center director and my daughter was about three years old and we were living on a military base. And I had the perspective at this time is that let's not play with guns, we're not gonna shoot them, we're not gonna point at them. Kids were trying to make them out of blocks and I would say, you know, "We're not gonna do that here at school." And then every day we are driving onto a military base past guards with guns, and we would say like, "Oh, we're home safe." And when we were readying for a deployment and we went to the armory, I just had this moment of, wait a second, I am telling her two very different things at the same time.

And anyone that lives in San Diego or any kind of military city or culture can understand that there's this big dichotomy between that, but it also exists for other helping fields and police officers. So when we make it about good and evil, right or wrong, that can get really confusing for children. And that's, again, we have to meet each child where they are and what makes sense for that child. Certainly, we get to make a decision about boundaries and what feels safe, and we can talk about ourselves. So still, I don't love it when kids play with guns and war play. I'm gonna tell you why I'm okay with it though. But it's still, it triggers something in me. It makes me a little uncomfortable. So I maybe can set some boundaries around it that feel, you know, I feel safer when we don't play, like, while we're pointing at faces. That makes me feel safe. That's a boundary and that's about me. That's not about me pushing that, like, that's wrong, what you're doing is wrong. So that's one thing I'll share.

There is no research that correlates children playing aggressively or war play in their imagination or weapon play in their imagination with any kind of negative outcomes. And in fact, there's a lot of positive research about it. So what kids are doing, like they do through all play, is acting out life experiences. They're thinking about things they've heard, they're interested in the power of weapons, everything around them tells them superheroes, weapons, war is powerful. Kids are very interested in power dynamics. They work out negotiation and morality and logical decision-making and choices all through that kind of play. So when we tell them it's wrong or stop them from doing it, we're taking away an opportunity for them to make sense of the world and what they're seeing around them. It's actually healthy to see that kind of play, especially in a time like now when kids might be exposed to what they're seeing or hearing on the news about weapons and war play. Or war, not war play.

So, if we see children doing it, what we see is, oh, they're acting out what they've seen in real life, just like if they go in a dramatic play area and pretend to cook something. It's the same. We are bringing a value system to it, and it's doing that, what I mentioned earlier, it's triggering something in us as adults, because we have all of this experience and all of this news and things we are thinking and have read and learned over the years about it, and they're just expressing themselves. So that's the thought about war play, is try to get yourself in a place that you recognize the value of it and how healthy it is for kids to act out situations like that. And if you wanna make some boundaries around it, feel comfortable with doing that, but make sure it's about you and what makes sense versus making a judgment about their choice of play.

Claire: Thank you for addressing that so thoroughly. I'm gonna move us along to another really common question that we get from families, which is what do we do, how do we tell children whose loved ones may face military service? Rosalind, do you wanna tackle this one? I know it's firsthand experience for you.

Rosalind: I will. I will tackle this one. I've had experience with it with my father. My father served in several different conflicts and was deployed a lot with his job based on what he had to do with the military. So there was a lot of conversation, and just when we were talking about before, the prep that comes beforehand. And then of course, as time goes on, things get a little more commonplace. But one of the things that we can do with someone who is in the military is basically go back to the experience and potential viewpoint that children have seen, by having them go to trainings. Going to field training exercises, going to do different things when they're at work, and let them know that, yes, we are scared that they're leaving us, we're going to miss them, they're going to miss us too, but they are trained to do that job. And then it's good that when we're talking about that, we're acknowledging the fear that they're feeling, asking them if they're worried.

And if they're worried, what's worrying you right now? And then giving them, again, that reassurance that there's lots of men and women whose job it is to protect each other when they're over there. We have lots of people here at home working on behalf of our soldiers, serving in military conflict. So letting them know that we hope that they are well while they're gone, and that they'll be safe, and they'll be home when their job is done. I think one of the things that we have to be careful about is not to over-promise because sometimes depending on their job, somebody may actually come home for a moment and then have to leave again and have another quick turnaround with a redeployment. And this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, is just what you can control in that moment right then and there. And that is keeping them safe, keeping them secure, providing them love. And then if you are looking for concrete, actionable items for them to help them alleviate some of that worry and some of that anxiety, look for different initiatives that are happening in your community, different things that are happening that you can support our soldiers overseas, and if there's something that your child can participate in, it's a good way for them to some type of control in their environment.

Claire: That's such a great answer, such a great answer. So let's say that we've had this conversation with our children, either about what's going on across the globe or about a family member that may have to participate in military conflict. And you don't know, you're wondering, did I do okay? But is the child, okay? So, Rosalind, could you just tell us what some signs of stress might look like? Like, how can we tell if our children are okay?

Rosalind: Absolutely. Because you can have the best-laid plans, but things still play out because children can't identify these big emotions that they're feeling and they can't qualify them. So if you happen to see any changes in sleep patterns, too little sleep, too much sleep, maybe change in appetite or eating habits. Children, when they get to be really stressed, sometimes it manifests itself in physical aches and pains and all of a sudden they don't feel well or their tummy hurts, or they have a headache. Escalated emotions, you know, maybe their responses to things are completely different than the way they would've responded previously. Maybe they're acting out and there's regression in some of their behaviors, or they're fearful or they're angry. I think one of the best things you can do, you know, is allow them to be themselves. And I always say, you know, show grace in this moment, right, for any uncharacteristic behaviors. And definitely... Yep. Go right ahead. And there you go.

Claire: Exactly. That's our first strategy. Recognize your child is an individual. You nailed it. That's exactly right.

Rachel: Yeah. Recognize your child as an individual. Think about their temperament. And just like adults, everyone has different thresholds for stress and different coping mechanisms and how to get through stress. Some people really like to be in groups and around other people and engaging in things and very social, and some people need to retreat for a little bit. And that's true for kids too. We forget that they are humans with their own thinking and their own emotions, and a lot of built-in stuff that we often don't give them credit for. And we kind of, "You're coming with me. I'm the parent, we're gonna do it the way that makes sense for me." But really back to what we said at the beginning, clueing into their cues and being very intentional with that and treating them like an individual. And one of the ways that you can, you know, if they're starting to say, like, "My tummy hurts," and sometimes that doesn't trigger you to think about, "Oh, they're probably stressed out," is keep a journal or diary.

We do that in our program where it's like, hmm, something doesn't seem quite right. We keep it very confidential but we start to track like, is this happening after lunch every day, what's going on? What's what can I learn from this behavior? And that will really help you understand, is this something I maybe wanna think about, worry about a little bit more than normal, or? You definitely don't wanna dismiss it of course, but that'll help you there. Reassuring them of their safety and security. We do wanna be careful about overpromising things to children, like, "Nothing will ever happen to this family." But we could say something like, "When you and I are together, my job is to keep you safe." Or, you know, know, find the words that make a lot of sense. So, "I'm thinking about what keeps you safe every day." or, "Every time I'm with you all I'm thinking about is how much I love you and how important it is to me to keep you safe."

Those are really comforting words to a child, and it's really what they care about. The right now. What's happening to me right now? They're not thinking big picture, long term. So we don't need to make these grandiose promises anyway. Help them play. If they're not playing, if that's not showing up, actually you want that to happen. You want them to be using imaginary play and play to talk through big feelings. So promote that with creative supplies, materials. Don't get out coloring books, get out cardboard boxes, pots and pans, art supplies, things that allow children to express themselves. Get them talking about feelings, labeling, what does mad look like? What does scare look like? What does stress look like? What do we do with those feelings? Those are super important life skills.

So, getting them out, talking about them is really valuable. Keeping those predictable routines as much as you possibly can. This does not mean that every single day you have to be up and out the door by 7:45 or things will go awry. And different children have different temperaments for this, right? So you wanna think about that. But children cannot tell the time. I'm pointing to my wrist like we're all wearing watches anymore. But children cannot tell the time, they can't read a calendar, most of them, when they're little, I'm talking about little kids. They tell what's coming next through a routine and they know how to be successful and what's expected of them through a routine. So it's not about, "I have to be rigid in this schedule." It's, "I have to help my child succeed."

When they kind of have a meltdown, no matter what age they are, a lot of times it's because of a rapid adjustment that they weren't prepared for, no one gave them a say in it. And we all know what that does to all of us. It does it to me. I'm not very good at dealing with that either. I already talked about limited exposure to media, but worth saying again to make sure you're real thoughtful about all that background media, all that background noise, or even the conversation you have on the phone with your friend or family member. And then you can participate in events. Having some control is really important to all of us when we're feeling stressed, and that's really where a lot of stress and anxiety comes from, is feeling a lack of control, that things are happening to you and you have no say in the matter.

So giving ourselves a sense of control, that's what we do in these situations. We look for what can we do? How can we donate? How can we contribute? How can we help? Children can't express that necessarily, and sometimes even if they can, if they're older, they just don't know how to say it, or they're not quite thinking about it, but what they do is they wanna figure out a way that they can take some control. And a really great way to do that is through contributing.

Claire: Yeah, that's exactly right. And we talk about empathy, I think, in almost every webinar that we do, Rachel. At some point, I feel like it comes up because it's one of the most important skills that you can start working on with your young children as they grow into a school-age child. And this is an opportunity for that, okay? So this is a challenging situation for all of us to be in as parents. We've mentioned over and over again, you're not gonna get it right, you're not gonna get it perfect. But it's not just a one-and-done conversation either. So you've got this opportunity to follow up with that initial conversation, to follow up with that and say, "What do you think we could do to help some who live in Ukraine?" Or, "How do you think they're feeling?" You know, challenge your preschooler or your pre-K student or your kindergartener to flex those empathy muscles that they're working so hard at developing, and ask them to think about how would that feel if that was their...?

You don't wanna do anything too stressful, right? You don't wanna have to paint a gory picture. But you can just say, "You know, I think that there are some families who live in a different country who might need our help. What could we do?" Have that conversation. That's the beginning of building empathy. And then from there you can take action, right? There might be some local organizations who are supporting families in Ukraine. You can certainly, there's not really a whole lot we can do to directly help at this point except donate money, which is kind of an abstract concept for young children, but you can certainly talk to them about, you know, we wanna donate money to an organization. Maybe we could do some extra chores and I could, you know, we could make some money that way. Or we could have a lemonade stand, or we could have a yard sale, and we can take the money and we can send it to these people across the world who are really, really, really in need of it, right?

All that is so... you're role modeling being a good global citizen, your role modeling empathy and compassion. There's certainly lots of companies, Bright Horizons is doing this where we're raising money through Save the Children. So, there are opportunities, and, you know, endless opportunities that you're aware of to help donate. But really, get your kids involved. They're not too young. They are not too young to get involved in these kinds of efforts. They're really not. Okay. So we've left just enough time for some questions. Again, if you want to send us some questions, you can use the Q&A widget below to send those in to us. I wanna take a quick moment before we go to questions to just plug our resources that are attached with that blue paper clip below. We have linked to "What Happened to My World?" which is the book that I mentioned at the beginning.

We have lots of resources about all types of topics available to you on our website. Rachel and I co-host a parenting podcast that's focusing on parenting kids ages zero to 8. We tackle lots of topics just like this one. Things that might be tricky, things that you have questions about. And then there's also a flyer attached for all of our future webinars. We have about one a month coming up for the rest of the year, so please check those out. And we are gonna move on to some questions. So while we're waiting for some live questions to come in, I'm gonna start with some of the questions that you all sent in. We asked you when you registered for the webinar to submit your questions to us ahead of time. So I picked a few that I felt would be relevant to today. So let's start with this first one. "I have a very sensitive child. When I tried talking to him about the war, all he was thinking was they're going to do the same thing to us, and began crying. How can we handle this?" Rosalind, Rachel, you wanna take a swing at this one?

Rachel: This is hard stuff, when our kids are having these kinds of emotions and we feel like we don't have a clear answer. I don't know what age child this is so I'll just give a general thought about it. But, I mean, so the first sentence is, "When I tried talking to him about the war," so I think that you don't have to talk about it with your children. You don't have to bring it up. It can be, especially older children, an opportunity to learn about conflict and politics and all sorts of things. So it's an opportunity for older children. But if this is a younger child, you don't need to bring it up with them. But if child brought it up to you, so, just, again, that listening response and checking your own emotions, saying, "You are having some big emotions about this. I really see that. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you're feeling right now?" Talk through the feelings. What can we do about those feelings? What are you worried about? Tell me why you're thinking that.

All those kind of follow up curiosity questions that we talked about at the beginning, that's gonna get you to a place that you understand what that child needs to feel safe and secure, and to really recognize those emotions as real and important and big and a lot to deal with, and let's figure out how to deal with those emotions. So kind of three different things there is, you don't have to talk to them about it when they're little. If it's important to you or they're coming to you, just really go in with that curiosity, asking questions back and validating those big, tough emotions. I remember one time my daughter said something to me that was similar. It was really hard for me to hear. And she was laying on the floor crying, and I just laid on the floor and cried with her. I just met her in that moment. And that's sometimes all what you can do, is just validate the feeling and, "Let's be here together. Let's be in this together." It is a scary feeling.

Claire: Absolutely. I mentioned I have three kids and one of them is a lot more sensitive than the other two, so the way I spoke to him about this was very different than how I spoke to my other two children. And I think my biggest challenge is validating all of his feelings, because he has a lot of feelings about a lot of things all the time with the feelings. So making me a safe place to continue coming back to me with more worries and more questions. Let's take another question here. We've got, oh, I'm so sorry. I went back too far. Let's go with this 5-year-old question. "My 5-year-old is intrigued by the military vehicles and explosions, and wants to role play war. I try not to encourage violence, but also feel that saying too much could encourage the behavior further. What do you suggest?"

Rosalind: Look, I'll go ahead and jump in on this because as a regional manager over child care facilities, we see this a lot. We see concern by parents and concern by teachers. But I think this goes back to, again, what you were talking about, Rachel, about the level of power that children feel when they get into this dramatic play of explosions and military vehicles and war. I mean, it's not just those vehicles, it's construction vehicles, it's big things that you see them making, big changes and big moves. And so, one of the things that as parents that we can do when we see our kids playing out these different scenarios is, well, be there to watch and to observe, and then be there also as a person who might interject and ask questions.

And if you see something that is potentially opposite or not aligned with your family values, maybe you would interject a question that would lead you back to anything that you were feeling that was different than what you would see. So, as a parent I recognize that what I wanted to see in a moment wasn't the most important thing. It was giving my children the opportunity to express themselves, and for me to use that moment to understand the lens in which they were viewing the world, and it allowed me an opportunity to respond. Rachel, do you have anything else?

Rachel: Yeah, I think that's great. I opened up the chat so I could see what some of you are commenting and I think I'm gonna take a couple of your ideas and say that I wouldn't worry about the encouraging the behavior further. Hopefully, we've talked about this a little bit, about the healthiness of this kind of play. But you can certainly have those boundaries and you can even have boundaries that say, "This kind of play, or you can play this game, but we also have to make sure that nobody gets hurt. So how are we gonna do that?" And make a play plan with them. So it's not wrong that you wanna do this, it's okay that you wanna do this, but let's plan how it's gonna be safe and comfortable for everyone.

And if someone doesn't wanna play, they get to choose not to play. And you can't try to make them play with you in this game. So you can do that. The play plan is an interesting activity for young children anyway, to really think critically about what they're gonna do and what they're trying to attempt and processing what supplies they need and things like that. So that can be really good brain development as well. But it helps them think through, "Oh, you are right. Okay. So nobody's gonna get hurt. So this is what we should do. Maybe we should draw an area in the yard and we can only play there." They'll think of the solutions and it allows you to get out of managing that so much.

Claire: Absolutely.

Rosalind: I love that. Love that idea.

Claire: We've got a question from the audience here. It's about a slightly older child, but I think you'll both be able to tackle it because you have had all-age children at this point. The question from the audience is, "My 11-year-old son is not asking questions, but I feel it's a good learning opportunity to talk about Russia and Ukraine with him. How would you recommend beginning the conversation?"

Rosalind: Look, I'll go ahead and start off, and Rachel...

Rachel: Do you wanna go, Rosalind?

Rosalind: Yes. So, you know, it's interesting, we expect a certain response from children when things are happening around the world because we understand how we are gonna respond. But we have a wealth of experience and background when we're looking at that, and so not... Children come from a different standpoint and sometimes it could be a simple one, and they look at it through a different lens. So if your child right now is not asking about it, I think even going back to what Rachel said, maybe it's not something that you talk about right now and you wait for that organic moment, that natural time when they are inquisitive, and keep with what they are interested in and what they are talking about. Children do tend to recognize their biggest feelings and what's important in their world. So, for us, the war is what's in our world, and sometimes it's not even for an 11-year-old. But if you do wanna take the moment to introduce what's happening, I think it goes back to, you know, being very intentional and still making sure that you're listening to your child. Because you don't want to press your child to participate in a Ukraine lesson if that's not what they're interested in and that's not where their feelings are. Rachel?

Rachel: Yeah, I agree. I think the, again, back to what I said earlier, you can use those same strategies. I would wait for the natural moment. Maybe you're gonna see something or hear something together, but you can also say, "I was listening to the news about what's going on in the Ukraine today, have heard anything about it? What are you...?" Maybe they'll say yes and they just haven't talked to you about it. And then, "What are you thinking about it?" Or, "I'd like to share a little bit of what's going on with you." And then, "I'd like to know how you're feeling about that or what questions you have, or what thoughts do you have?" And then when children do have thoughts or they hear something or read something and come back to you about that, not to say, "Oh, that person's wrong," or, "You shouldn't believe that."

Because then these are the kind of situations we also get into differing family values. Or I heard this at so and so's house, or this person said this, or I heard this from these sources. Taking a, "Well, let's figure that out. Let's look that up together, let's find out together." So you're giving them those skills to do it, but you're not passing judgment on somebody else or making something sound wrong. Try not to pit one thing against each other. And again, we're not even wanting to do that with Russian people and Ukrainian people. The choice of a narrow group of people in the government is not representative of people that are Russian or have families in Russia are going through a very tough time right now as well.

Claire: Thank you for those thoughtful answers. One other question that we thought was really important and relevant that was sent in ahead of time, "We have family and close friends in the current active war zone. I want my 4-year-old to understand what's happening, but not stress him out too much as he's already very anxious. How can I find the right balance?" Rachel, do you have any tips?

Rachel: Yeah, this is tough. And our heart goes out to you that you have family and close friends in this active war zone. You know, back to some of the things Claire and Rosalind were saying about giving children a way to show their compassion and care, finding a way that they can do something. So telling children about a stressful situation, but nothing they can do about it, and especially if it's about somebody that they know is that they're very egocentric so they'll focus in on it if it's somebody that they know, that without giving them a way to do something about it will be tricky. So, "So and so, our cousins are here, but we're going to do this for them," that will help as you talk through that conversation. The other thing I would just say in this situation, or in any of these situations we've talked about is talk about the good stuff. Make sure that you have the right balance.

Our brains are wired to look for threats, and we focus on those. That is true for all of us. We are still in the mode where our brains think a tiger might be coming at us at any given moment. That is not true anymore, but our brains still function like that. We get what's called an amygdala hijack, that part of our brain that says, "I see a threat, I must do something about it." And we really easily forget all the good stuff. We have to work at that. And so, you have to do that for yourself and you have to do that for your children too. And you can help them talk about that through the day, those small, meaningful moments that sometimes slip right by us. You know, there's that quote that says, and I'm gonna butcher the quote, but something about, like, "When you look back, you'll realize the big moments in life were really just all the small moments in life." And that's elevating that, again, for yourself because adults do this too. And for your children, it can be really positive and healthy.

Claire: Thank you both so much. I'm aware that we're out of time, but I just wanna thank you both, Rosalind and Rachel, for joining us for this really important discussion. Thank you to all of you for carving out an hour. You will get a recording to this webinar so you can refer to our strategies. And please don't forget to check out the resources that are linked below. Thank you so much for joining us for this important discussion.

Rachel: Thanks, everyone.

Rosalind: Thank you. Appreciate it.

About the Speakers

Claire Goss

Claire oversees the outreach to Bright Horizons families, so they feel included in and supported through their child’s education. She has worked for over 15 years as a parenting educator, researcher, and writer.

A photo of Rachel Robertson, Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons.

Rachel is Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons. She leads the education, curriculum, and field learning & development teams, and hosts the parenting podcast, Teach, Play, Love: Parenting Advice for the Early Years.