Ukraine news isn’t easy for children, but it shouldn’t be ignored

By Susan Christian Goulding, The Orange County Register, March 18, 2022

The adults didn’t notice she was paying so much attention.

After dinner at her grandparents’ house one recent evening, Delaney Chambers, age 9, sat at the kitchen island scribbling pictures; literally scribbling, her dominant right hand in a cast due to a schoolyard mishap.

Meanwhile, her father and grandfather lingered at the dining room table a few feet away discussing the horrifying news coming out of Ukraine.

As they talked, a note-inscribed paper airplane landed in front of them. Delaney’s dad, Ian Chambers, unfolded the missive.

“No talking about death, wars, things that could kill us, not living on this world, the end of the world, Russians.”

Chagrined, the adults in the room swiftly complied.

“All I heard was war, war, Russia, war,” the Fullerton fourth-grader later explained. “I don’t like war, especially when it’s not for a good cause.”

Her mother has mixed emotions about the message.

“When I saw it, I felt both proud and sad,” said Delaney’s mother, Kristen Chambers, a kindergarten aide. “I was proud that she could write those things down and express herself so well. But at the same time I was sad that she felt a need to express those things.”

“Delaney’s a sassy pants, but she’s also hypersensitive,” noted Ian Chambers, a graphics design artist.

Although a safe distance from the bombs dropping on Ukrainian homes, children here can harbor their own fears about faraway violence – perhaps more anxiously than parents realize.

“Delaney’s note made me realize that we need to sit down and talk to her about Ukraine,” said Ian Chambers. “What is her perception? Does she think this is happening in her own backyard?”

Dr. Heather Huszti, chief psychologist at Children’s Health of Orange County (CHOC), brought to mind the old adage “little pitchers have big ears.”

“Kids are great at picking up information you don’t think they’re picking up,” Huszti said. “It’s a survival strategy: ‘I gotta be attuned to my environment because I don’t get told everything.’ And, ‘If it’s so scary that grownups are talking about it in quiet voices, it must be really scary.’”

But that doesn’t mean parents should stay mum. Instead, talking is best.

“The car is a great place to have those discussions,” Huszti said. “You might start with, ‘What are your friends saying about this?’ ‘What do you think about it?’ We tend to ask yes or no questions, which make kids feel put on the spot. Try open-ended questions so you’re not leading the conversation.”

Assure kids that even in times of chaos possible solutions are underway. “You might say something like, ‘A lot of smart people are working very hard to figure out what to do about this conflict,” Huszti said.

And remember that kids “haven’t been alive long enough to have the context that grownups do,” she added.  “When adults have scary thoughts like, ‘This is World War III,’ we’re able to step back and put things more in perspective.”

Tamara Krinsky, a Los Angeles actress, said that’s exactly the fear 11-year-old daughter recently brought home.

“She said, ‘I’m worried about World War III starting.’ My husband and I told her, ‘You are safe here.’

“We find it helps to talk about history – the Cold War, the Berlin Wall coming down – to at least give her some context,” Krinsky added. “We try to have nuanced conversations about the bigger picture.”

Krinsky noted that her middle schooler is at an age where “anything her peers say takes precedence in her brain.”

“We do not get to control everything she hears and sees anymore. I just feel lucky she still comes to us with questions.”

Still, Krinsky admitted she has doubts about her answers.

“I’m figuring it out day by day, like the rest of us.”

David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said “perfect answers” are not the goal.

“If children ask, ‘Why would anybody be evil enough to start a war?,’ they’re probably not really expecting you to tell them the roots of evil,” Schonfeld said. “They may be just voicing their concerns.

“The tendency is to focus on, how do we make our kids feel there isn’t a problem? What we really need to focus on is, how do we help our kids deal with distressing feelings?”

One way or another, kids hear about disconcerting current events. It’s better if they first get the news from their parents, Schonfeld said, “in a way that’s factual yet reassuring.”

As director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Schonfeld has counseled families in the wake of some of the nation’s most shocking tragedies, including the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

An Aurora mother told Schonfeld she had decided to keep news of that event away from her young son.

“One night at dinner, she suggested seeing a new Disney movie, and the kid said, ‘We shouldn’t go to a theater. Someone is murdering people there,’” Schonfeld recounted. “He’d learned about it from another child during his swim lesson.

“Parents have an illusion that they can control information,” Schonfeld added. “But they can’t always.”

Touchingly, children can seek to protect adults from heartache as much as adults do them. When children sense guarded sorrow, they often avoid prying.

For example, Schonfeld said, his daughter, then in fourth grade, deducted from the silence of teachers that talking about the 9-11 terrorist attack was off limits. “I will not discuss this at school,” the girl pronounced. “I don’t want to make my teacher sad.”

Huntington Beach resident Tatyana Bukrinsky — a native of Ukraine — said her 7-year-old daughter recently surprised her with a poignantly innocent, and frightening, comment.

Bukrinsky and her tennis friends recently dressed for a match in blue and yellow, to show support for her homeland. But when the girl saw Bukrinsky’s outfit, she fretted: “What if someone kills you for wearing Ukrainian colors?”

Bukrinksy, who works in healthcare compliance for Kaiser Permanente, has resolved to steer her family’s mindset from anger to action. Last week, she helped organize a kids’ jog-a-thon to raise money for Ukrainians.

It’s the kind of tangible deed that child psychologist Kimberley Lakes encourages.

“Anytime we feel uncertain about the future, it helps to get proactive,” said Lakes, a professor at UC Riverside. “Brainstorm with kids. Ask them for their ideas. Raise money, donate goods, write letters to refugees. It makes us feel like we can at least do something.”

But also earmark moments for simply enjoying life and loved ones — time spent not dwelling on horrific events — reminded CHOC psychologist Huszti.

“It’s easy to feel guilty about doing fun activities when terrible things are happening somewhere else,” Huszti said. “But if you allow yourself to become overwhelmed, you’re not doing anyone any good. You are not dismissing the pain and suffering of people in Ukraine by taking a mental break from the news.”

Elliott Chi, 13, a well-read and conscientious seventh-grader in Huntington Beach, said he can feel a bit out of sync with peers who are more carefree.

“I see kids smiling, having fun, enjoying their day, and I think, ‘People in Ukraine aren’t able to do that right now,’” Elliott said. “This is not just two nations arguing about a border, but an invasion in which civilians are dying.”

Remarkably empathetic, Elliott also forces himself to step away from the constant stream of tragic stories.

“Sometimes I find myself a little too steeped in heavy subjects,” Elliott said. “I go outside and play sports with my friends, or I play video games – something that allows me not to think about what’s going on in the world.”

Delaney’s parents are now talking with her more candidly about the war. “We look for positives, like the Polish mothers who left strollers at the border for Ukranian babies,” Kristen Chambers said.

“It helps me to better understand what’s happening and puts good thoughts in my mind,” Delaney said.

Still, Delaney observed, she’d rather not need to understand any of it: “Kids should just have to think about happiness and peace.”