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How to talk to Early Years children about war: with helpful grounding techniques

12 min of reading
28 April 2022
talk to Early Years children about war

Given the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it’s important to take into consideration how our children in Early Years are coping and receiving information.

You may be thinking: “Why should we speak to young children about war and conflict? Shouldn’t it be avoided?” Children absorb more than you think, so we spoke with child psychologist, Dr Tamara Licht, on how to approach these difficult topics, plus we explored some helpful grounding techniques.

What you’ll find in this article

    How should nursery practitioners talk to children about war?

    In reality, the children are exposed to the topic, so Dr Licht advises that they should be gradually informed about the conflict according to their age. Remember that children are like sponges, so even if they are not actively coming forward with questions or talking about it, they are most likely hearing about it through comments that parents and/or nursery practitioners are saying. Dr Licht advises that if a child brings up the war, nursery practitioners and parents should definitely talk about it. This can be done by two different approaches: describing techniques and validating emotions.

    For example, if a child brings up the conflict at your setting, you can ask them to describe what they are trying to communicate. This can be done by the 2 techniques:

    Secondly, nursery practitioners can also approach these conversations by talking about the children’s emotions. It’s important to keep in mind that the children are still young, and are in fact learning to communicate their feelings. So be patient as they try to communicate their emotions about the war with you.

    How to answer difficult questions

    As we know, children sometimes come out with straight forward questions which can be hard for nursery practitioners to answer. So how can you deal with this? The main idea Dr Licht advises is to understand the thought behind the question, and to ask them why they are thinking this way.

    For example, if a child asks: ‘Am I going to die?’ nursery practitioners can approach this by validating the question by saying: “I hear that you’re saying that you think you are going to die. Let’s think together why you are thinking like this.” It’s vital that you allow the child to express their feelings in order to make sure that you are responding to their exact feelings, and not just jumping to conclusions.

    What you don’t want to do is assume what the child is feeling and then provide an explanation that would make sense to you but actually misses the mark when it comes to the feelings of the child.

    What type of language should we use/avoid in conversations about war?

    The main idea here is that you do not put your own words into the child’s mouth. The nursery practitioner should only respond to emotions that have clearly been expressed by the child. You also don’t want to jump to conclusions or assume anything. Therefore, you need to encourage the child to speak for themselves, while refraining from putting your own emotions into the situation.

    “We need to really understand what they [the child] are trying to communicate before speaking about the topic with them. This is because a child might be confused rather than scared, or they may be tired and not worried. And therefore, the nursery practitioner must deal with the core emotion that the child is feeling,” Dr Tamara Licht, child psychologist, London.

    How can we limit a child’s exposure to the current situation?

    The reality is that our children are going to be exposed to the conflict whether we like it or not. There are ways we could limit a child’s exposure, but at the same time, we can’t put children in a bubble as Dr Licht advises this has negative mental health impacts in the long term. Remember that children interact and share information at nursery every day, so it’s not about avoiding these situations altogether, but rather it’s about being mindful of our reactions and conversations.

    “It can have extreme consequences to put a child in a heavily protected structure because that is not reality, and long term there are mental health concerns that develop when you have these interventions from parents; long term it might not work,” Dr Tamara Licht, child psychologist, London.

    Speaking to children with relations in the affected countries

    If a child comes forward to a nursery practitioner saying that they are worried about someone, Dr Licht advises that you talk about the responsibility of the worry, and explain that this is not their burden to bear. Even at this young age, children begin to understand the role that everyone has to play: a nursery practitioner, a parent, a doctor. You can communicate with the child that there are people who are responsible for the safety of that person working each day, to eliminate the child’s sense of responsibility.

    Grounding techniques for anxiety

    There are many games that you can play at your setting to help reduce anxiety and stress that children may be feeling as a result of the conflict. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these grounding techniques should not replace or be used to avoid the hard conversation about the feelings of the child. After the conversation, you can use these activities to distract the child. Why not try:

    Rainbow games

    In this activity the child looks at each colour of the rainbow, and finds a number of objects that match the colour. For example, the practitioner can ask a 3 year old: “Can you find me 3 things that are blue?” And they can also go on to ask the child to name and/or find answers relating to the 5 senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste.

    These activities can be used as coping strategies, as they remind the child that nothing is happening right now to them, and they are OK in this moment.

    Bubble games

    For this grounding technique, the nursery practitioner can ask the child to imagine a bubble. They can put all their feelings and thoughts about the conflict into this bubble. Now ask them to create a second bubble. This is the happy place bubble. Ask the child: “Where would you be? What is around you? Who is with you in this happy, safe place?” This is because the child has been visualising the conflict, and now we want them to picture something different; somewhere they are happy, safe, and at ease.

    Signs a child is experiencing too much anxiety

    Every adult handles anxiety differently, and it’s the same with children. So what are some indications that a child might be experiencing an unusual amount of anxiety? Anxiety is likely to be indicated by gradual changes in the child’s behaviour such as:

    Dr Licht advises that therefore there needs to be communication between nursery practitioners and parents to pick up if any deviation from the typical changes begins to happen.

    What should you do if a child says they want to help with the war?

    It’s possible that children may come forward saying that they want to help with the conflict in some way. In this situation, nursery practitioners can suggest to the children that they do drawings, or participate in community events raising funds for the crisis. Additionally, by drawing something, this gives the children a sense of accomplishment as they have created something themselves. This also boosts the child’s confidence as they feel they are achieving and changing something. And when a child is more confident, Dr Licht advises that a child is logically more rational. So this will help to calm any anxiety they may be feeling.

    What can nursery practitioners do to give support to affected parents?

    Nursery practitioners must first understand whether or not their parents have a network of support in dealing with this issue. If not, they can refer parents to relevant mental health services which can give them guidance. A GP can be a point of call as they have a duty of care.

    Secondly, nursery practitioners can also suggest parent support groups for those affected parents. Dr Licht also emphasises that not all parents are able to reach out or talk about it. So it needs to be addressed with sensitivity and empathy. And by practitioners simply expressing that they care about them and offering options to parents, support is being provided.

    How should nursery practitioners close conversations about war?

    Dr Licht advises that after speaking with children about what they have heard and what they feel, nursery practitioners can do one of the grounding exercises mentioned earlier. It’s important to highlight that we don’t want the door to be shut on difficult topics such as war and conflict. In fact, once we speak about it with our children, the children can take a long time to actually process what’s been said. So it’s a long journey, and it must be clear to the child that they can reach out about the topic again if and when they wish to.

    “You can also say to your children: ‘If you return to that place where you are feeling sad (or another emotion) about this, we can talk about it again.’ It’s not a tickbox that once it’s done, it’s done. It must be an ongoing conversation,” Dr Licht, child psychologist, London.

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