The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your kids are hearing about Ukraine. Here’s how to help them understand.

Ukrainians and supporters wave Ukrainian flags during an antiwar protest outside the Russian Embassy in Mexico City. (Luis Cortes/Reuters)
8 min

The day after Russia first attacked Ukraine, I passed the Russian Embassy with my 12-year-old son. People were gathered at its ominous gates, protesting that country’s invasion. “What have you heard so far about Ukraine and what’s happening?" I asked him. I was taking advice from experts who say when something scary happens, first ask how much our children know and go from there. My son knew a decent amount. And then I asked: "How do you get your information?”

“SportsCenter,” he said.

He and his 14-year-old brother, who gets much of his news from Instagram, TikTok and texts from friends, had a grasp of what was happening, but they didn’t understand why or how. They also are dodging a lot of misinformation.

If you think your kids don’t know about Putin’s war against Ukraine, you’re wrong. They’re hearing about it, and as their caretakers, we need to make sure information is correct — and that they aren’t immediately anxious that we’re on the verge of World War III.

“Most kids will have heard something about this on TV, radio, social media, from friends,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And much like the Cuban missile crisis implanted itself on his 11-year-old brain forever, “this won’t be something they’ll forget," Haass says.

I spoke with several experts who explain how parents of tweens and teens should look to this terrible time as an opportunity to discuss global issues — and to help them understand how to help. Maybe we parents will learn a few things in the process.

Your kids are taking the news in. Now what?

“As much as we think our kids don’t hear what we’re anxious about, I think they do,” says Caroline Netchvolodoff, vice president of education at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I have four sons. One of the things I’ve learned very clearly is kids do pick up on what their parents are anxious about. ... They are aware."

Kids of different ages require different kinds of explanations and parental involvement, she says.

When Emma Humphries asked her 10-year-old what she had heard and what she thought was going on, her daughter said, “I heard we’re going to have a World War III.” Humphries, a former history teacher and now chief education officer at iCivics, a nonprofit that promotes civics education and provides educational resources for teachers, knew to frame what is happening in a historical way, comparing it to the previous world wars, and explaining how it is different. “Whenever you’re in a current moment and it feels scary or fraught, you can lean into the history and use that for the framework” of your conversation, she says.

For parents of older kids who are accessing Ukraine news via TikTok or other social media, now is the time to get involved. When they mention something they saw or read, sit with them while they show you where they gain their knowledge. Treating this as something you’re figuring out together will keep them from feeling like they have to hide it from you. “In this fog of war, we’re getting such incomplete information," Humphries says. “So talk to them about their sources. Ask ‘Can we find this information in other places? Are they reputable?’ ”

What is NATO? Ukraine invasion raises profile of this political and military alliance.

It’s so easy for our tweens and teens to access information they assume to be true. Parents don’t have to hover, but checking in on sources and helping our kids understand what it means to be a reliable source is important, especially now. They may actually like sharing this with you, and you can learn together.

“We wish this wasn’t happening, we’re not happy it’s happening, but it’s happening and we should leverage it for these powerful conversations,” Humphries adds.

Find resources, meet them where they are

The Council on Foreign Relations and iCivics recently created “Convene the Council,” an online game for ages 12 and up, aimed at showing how the president of the United States makes foreign policy decisions. The Ukraine situation is an “extreme example” of a foreign policy challenge, Netchvolodoff says, but playing alongside your child as they worry and wonder about the situation in Eastern Europe can help provide them (and you) with more information about how things work. And more knowledge can mean more ease as they see pictures and videos and hear friends talking about what’s going on.

“In some cases, you’re co-learning” with your children, says Julie Silverbrook, senior director of partnerships at iCivics.

“The good news is you’ve got something … that will elicit questions from a younger person. It’s a way for parents to say here’s what’s going on,” Haass says. He suggests you take a moment and look at a map together. You can talk about the invasion and ask your tween or teen questions, so they understand that question so many are asking: Why should we care? “You can talk about freedom, about the importance of democracy,” Haass says. "So much tends to be abstract. Here you have pictures and videos. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so remote. It’s all too graphic and real.”

Lisa Remillard, a former television news reporter and anchor, now co-founder of digital network BEONDTV, has discovered how to reach the audience who needs her: TikTok. Her audience is mostly 16- to 30-year-olds, she says, and her videos about Ukraine are garnering millions of views. She says she wants to help bring short, fact-based news reporting to a generation that might not otherwise get it on social media. She kept seeing comments from her viewers asking why the United States is even involved in the Ukraine situation, and why they should care. “I tried to explain there’s a humanitarian part of this. That didn’t go too far. So I focused on how world events like this impacts the U.S.” She has done videos about what Putin really wants, and more history-based videos about why the Soviet Union collapsed — as she realized her audience wasn’t alive when that happened.

Tik Tok is the medium where so many of our young people are getting their news, and it’s hard for them to discern what’s factual. So this is a chance for parents to meet their kids where they are and point them to factual content. “They see these pictures everywhere, whereas when we were young, our parents just turned it off. At school we didn’t see it. But these kids have their phones and it’s everywhere,” Remillard says. “So if we come to them, get down to the root basics of how these things work, it’s going to be a better place to start from with them.”

Stop scrolling, start doing

It’s easy for any of us to scroll through Twitter and Instagram, to feel anxiety and sorrow and then ... what? "Any time you have a global crisis, if you look throughout world history, there has been an awakening that happens about your place as an individual, as a family, in the world,” says Silverbrook. “The pandemic really illustrated that we’re all interconnected. ... Now there’s a feeling of a call to service for human kind.”

During the pandemic, many children and parents did what they could to “flatten the curve” and protect front-line workers, she explains. “These moments, they call to us. It happened after 9-11, too.” The current crisis is yet again “a call to service for families. So beyond the anxiety, it’s an opportunity to better understand your role and what you can do. You don’t have to be the president of the United States to make an impact."

Now is the perfect time to sit down with your children and figure out how they can help. Feeling as if they can have some impact during such a tumultuous time gives them agency and a feeling that they can make a difference. There are many vetted places that you can peruse together before you decide what to do, or how. Again, this is a good time to talk about legitimate sources.

“What we have here is a global teachable moment," Humphries says. "This is the type of moment that allows us to have those conversations.”

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