How to talk about war with your young child – and help them feel safe

News of war and other armed conflicts around the world can be unsettling and confusing for your child. In most instances, young children often react to their parents' distress, which is why it's important to monitor your own emotions when you're talking about war. If your child asks, be brief and honest with your answers, validate their feelings and fears, and reassure them that they're safe. It's also a good idea to limit their exposure to TV news broadcasts.

silhouettes during sunset of an army soldiers aligned next to each other and a commander in front of them
Photo credit: Thinkstock / 1971yes

When countries wage war, it can affect young children profoundly. Even if the conflict is thousands of miles away, it might still undermine a child's deep need to see the world as a safe and predictable place. What's more, if a relative or other loved one – or any person they personally know – is called to duty, they may harbor deep anxiety about that person's safety.

Does my young child understand what war is?   

Kids this age have a range of reactions to armed conflict. If your young child isn't directly affected by it and hasn't been exposed to repeated television images of battle or bomb-ravaged cities, they may have little or no reaction. In fact, a child this age is likely to react more to their parents' distress than to anything else.

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It's important for you to try to monitor your own emotions when your child is with you, and to help reassure them that they're safe. One of the best things you can do is limit your child's exposure to coverage of violent events in the news. Repetitive newscasts increase a child's stress and may confuse her into thinking that a single event has happened over and over again.

Children dealing with other traumas at the same time – such as a divorce or a death in the family – are more at risk for anxiety. But even if everything else in their life is fine, if your child has picked up anxious vibes from you or other important people in their life, they're likely to show signs of regression. They may act younger than usual, whine or cling more, regress in potty training, or wake up more frequently in the middle of the night. It's hard on you, but it's a normal childhood reaction to anxiety – they're trying to revert to a time when they were younger and felt safer.

Give your preschooler lots of hugs and cuddling. Encourage them to sleep with a favorite doll or stuffed animal, or to keep their night-light on if they want to – even if six months ago they decided they were too grown up for such things. You can even tell them to hop into your bed if they feel the need (and you're open to having them there). And if you suspect that they're not voicing what they really feel – or can't, because they don't yet have the vocabulary – watch for nonverbal signs of anxiety, such as disrupted sleep patterns, angry or sad scribbles and drawings, or unusually withdrawn or aggressive play with other children.

In times like these, one of the greatest losses – other than loss of life – is loss of control. If your child thinks that you don't have control, it's frightening to them; which is why it's important to be a calm and reassuring presence. The most important place to exert control is over your daily routines: Don't skip meals or naps. Go to the park to play as usual, put your preschooler to bed on time, and make sure their caregivers are also following the normal order of the day.

How to talk about war with your young child

  • Be brief and reassuring. A child may ask a question that seems only tangentially related to the current situation, such as "What happens when people die?" You can use their question as a springboard to talk about death, but in this case their underlying concern is most likely, "Am I safe?" Reassure them that they're secure, and that you and the rest of the family are, too. "We're all okay, and we're going to be okay" are important words for them to hear.
  • Validate their feelings. Resist the urge to say, "Don't worry." (Do you feel any better when someone says this to you?) Your child's feelings are real and they need to be able to express them. Instead, you can say, "I know you feel worried because you've heard that people are fighting, but that's happening very, very far away from here – on the other side of the world."
  • Tell them that adults are working to keep them and everyone safe. It's common for young children to assume that conflict elsewhere in the world could move closer to home. As adults, it's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about an ongoing war and possible counter-attacks on our soil. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people are working to keep us safe.
  • Be ready to revisit the topic again and again. Don't be surprised if your child asks the same questions repeatedly. They don't fully understand permanence yet, so even though they've heard about deaths or bombs, they expect things to magically return to normal soon and may be confused when they don't. They may keep asking about the situation, especially if they see that it's ongoing.
  • Be ready not to talk about it. If you're sure that your child hasn't heard much about the war, don't press the issue with them. At their age it's fine – indeed, it's advisable – to be oblivious to frightening international events.
  • Use plenty of nonverbal reassurance. Some of your best clues about your child's anxiety level will come out nonverbally – through play, sleeping and eating patterns, and whether or not they become whiny or clingy or regress in other ways. It's important to respond to them nonverbally as well. If they seem worried, give them extra hugs and kisses. Above all, try to stick to normal routines to bolster their sense of security in their familiar daily life.
  • Have confidence in your ability to help. As a parent, you have the challenge of helping your child feel secure when you may be feeling insecure yourself. Remember that limiting access to scary news reports, sticking to comforting routines, and finding concrete ways to help those directly affected (such as packing up extra clothes and household items to send abroad, contributing to collection drives for medical or humanitarian relief, and making dinner for the neighboring family whose parent is stationed across the world) will reassure you as well as your child. And when you help yourself cope, you're helping your child as well. Kids are resilient, and respond well to your love and support.

How to answer your child's questions about war

These – or variations of these – are some of the most commonly asked questions that may come up when you're talking about war with young children.

  • "Why are you crying?" You can tell your child, "I'm sad because some soldiers (or some people near the fighting) were hurt badly." If they have further questions, answer them as simply as possible. But remember that a young child will be upset if they see that you're shocked or horrified by some mysterious event that they don't understand. Try to save your strongest reactions for times when they're not around.
  • "Why did people die?" Much of a child's response to news they've heard may consist simply of trying to figure out what actually happened. Once they have a grasp on the "whats," expect a lot of "why" questions, such as, "Why did the soldiers die? Why were they fighting a war? Why are we mad at the other country?" Keep your answers as brief and straightforward as possible: "The soldiers died because their plane was so damaged that it couldn't stay in the sky." As for how to answer more complicated – and fraught – questions about the current political situation, let your own convictions be your guide. Just remember to keep your answers as simple as you can.
  • "Will Uncle Joe die, too?" It's hard to pooh-pooh this question when a family member or other military or medical personnel in your child's life truly are in harm's way. Rather than brush off their concerns with bland – and perhaps dishonest – reassurances (after all, can you really say with certainty that "he'll be fine"?), acknowledge your child's very real fears. "You're worried that Joe might get hurt while he's helping our troops, aren't you?" You might say. "We all are, but Joe's with a lot of men and women whose job is to protect each other. We're hoping that he comes home safe as soon as his own job is done."
  • "Are Grandma and Grandpa okay?" Children of all ages commonly imagine immediate risk to themselves and their loved ones during times like these. Your young child doesn't understand that Grandma and Grandpa live on the other side of the world from the war zone. Reassure them: "Yes, they're fine. They are far, far away from where the fighting is happening. Would you like to call them on the phone right now and talk to them?" Related questions can include, "Am I going to be okay? Are they going to hurt our house, too?"
  • "Are there monsters under my bed?" Children may become fearful of strangers, monsters, darkness, or other unknowns. After all, these phantoms are easier to contemplate than the concept of war. Reassure your child about their stated fear: "No, there are no monsters under your bed or anywhere else. Let's go look together so you can see that monsters aren't real." You don't need to explain anything about real-world "monsters." Your child just wants you to reassure them that they'll be safe in their own bed tonight.
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American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2022. Terrorism and War: How to Talk to Children. a new window [Accessed February 2022]

Child Mind Institute. Undated. Helping Children Cope with Frightening News. a new window [Accessed February 2022]

Save the Children. Undated. How to Talk with Children about the Conflict in Ukraine. a new window [Accessed February 2022]

Mary VanClay
Mary VanClay is a reporter and editor with decades of experience who is based in the San Francisco Bay area.