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Ukraine-Russia: Talking to your children about the war

The situation in Ukraine can bring feelings of anxiety and stress, especially for kids. Mental health experts provide tips for approaching difficult topics.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Watching what’s happening in Ukraine is not easy.

Neither is talking about it, especially with children.

Even though the war is thousands of miles away, parents in East Tennessee are trying to navigate these tough conversations with their kids.

“You’re not alone, and it is hard. So, if you feel like this is tough, that’s because it is,” said Allysen Efferson, a family therapist based in Knoxville.

Mental health experts say in situations like these, children’s reactions are oftentimes based on their parents’ behavior.

They say the best way to keep your children calm and grounded is for you, as the parent, to regulate your own emotions first.

"I mean, if you're nervous, and you're anxious, and you're fearful, your child is going to be nervous, anxious and fearful,” Efferson added. “So as parents, we have a tremendous amount of influence and how our children will react to this.”

You can influence your children even without having a direct conversation.

"Even without directly discussing it, which you shouldn't avoid, it's an opportunity to model your reaction to distressing news and how you communicate it because children can pick up on that very easily," explained Dr. Donald Pierce, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt.

It’s also important to begin and end the conversation with reassuring statements.

That means letting your kids know they’re safe at home and school, and that they may come to you with any questions or uneasy feelings they’re experiencing.

“You start by saying, you know, ‘We're safe and let's talk about this. I'm a safe person. You can learn from me how to cope,’” said Dr. Katherine Spencer, a pediatric psychologist at Vanderbilt. “And then at the end when you might go through details, some of which could be jarring or alarming, saying, ‘And if anything else comes up, come to me.’"

Validating your children’s emotions is also crucial.

"Validating that this is awful. And doing that with your children in the same way that you would want to validate their feelings in any situation where they're distressed, you would do that in this as well,” explained Efferson.

They add that because this situation is entirely out of your control, it’s important to focus on things that you do have control over.

For example, helping your children make a donation to a charity or sending letters to those who are assisting refugees overseas can provide a sense of comfort.

Always remember: it’s okay to ask for help. 

If you feel like you cannot adequately support your child’s mental health, seeking professional help is always an option.

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