With invasion of Ukraine, parents and educators face tough conversations with kids


As the world contends with the assault on Ukraine, and news spreads quickly on social media and in the schoolyard, Canadians face tough questions from concerned kids. How should we talk to children about war?

From left, Elias, Aya and Sadaf Saleem in their Toronto home. Saleem says that she decided to speak with her children about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning before they could hear about it on the news or in the schoolyard. (Turget Yeter/CBC)

Sadaf Saleem was packing her children’s lunches in their Toronto home on Thursday morning, watching an early newscast, when she heard that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Wednesday night that the country would begin a “special military operation” to demilitarize its neighbour Ukraine. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called the attack “a war of aggression,” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Russia to cease “hostile” and “provocative” attacks on Ukraine.

Thinking of her children Aya and Elias —11 and nine years old — Saleem knew they might hear about the news during their upcoming school day. So she decided to sit them down beforehand and tell them about the ongoing war. 

“It just hit me that even though the children may not see it themselves on television, chances are during the school day someone’s going to say something,” Saleem told CBC News. “I just wanted to broach it myself before someone else could project their bias on them.” 

As the world contends with the assault on Ukraine, and news spreads quickly on social media and in the schoolyard, Canadians face tough questions from concerned kids. The key to discussing war with children is to stick to the facts and avoid demonization, according to parents and educators who’ve broached the subject.

Annie Ohana, a public school educator in Surrey, B.C., said that she discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with her Grade 9 students on Thursday morning. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Saleem’s Thursday morning discussion with her children, who hadn’t yet heard about the conflict, was an overview of the basics. 

She described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and that this particular conflict is different for Canada because of the country’s relationship to Ukraine.

On the other side of the country in Surrey, B.C., public school educator Annie Ohana fielded questions from an older crowd of students in her Grade 9 classroom.

“What does Russia want?” “Can Canadians be drafted?” “What will happen to the people of Ukraine?”

Ohana told CBC News that the public school where she teaches has a largely refugee and immigrant student population, with many having lived through war or who have family in active conflict zones. The conversations can get emotional, she said, with some students leaving the room so as not to trigger traumatic memories.

Because of the coronavirus, “I think younger students have had a relationship with this concept of global panic, global dynamics, global pandemics, global death that maybe a lot of us didn’t have to have when we were in high school,” Ohana said. “So the anxiety around it is very palpable.”

Ohana, who teaches law, social justice and social studies, among other subjects, said she explained to her students that people in Russia are protesting their government’s actions. According to The Associated Press, more than 1,700 people protesting in Russia were detained in 54 cities on Thursday. 

A person carries a banner during an anti-war protest after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Moscow on Thursday. The banner reads ‘No war. Freedom for political prisoners.’ (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

“I always try to separate the state from the people,” she said, later adding, “this is more of a political reality, of the powers that be making those decisions.”

Defence Minister Anita Anand said on Thursday that Canada does not currently have plans to have Canadian Armed Forces engage in an on-the-ground combat mission in Ukraine. 

Timothy Reid poses as a large Lenin statue is dismantled in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, in 2016. Reid, a former monitor for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a Canadian long-term observer in Ukraine, said that parents who want to discuss the war with their children should break it down to a few fundamental points. (Submitted by Timothy Reid)

Canada has the world’s largest Ukrainian population outside of Ukraine and Russia, with 1.3 million people identifying as Ukrainian-Canadian in the 2016 census. 

“Canada has sort of been known for a long time as being the place where there is the strongest expatriate Ukrainian, ethnic Ukrainian community outside of Ukraine. And many of the Ukrainian international organizations are actually based in Canada,” said Timothy Reid, a former monitor for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and a Canadian long-term observer in Ukraine. 

Reid is a speaker with The Memory Project, a Historica Canada initiative that places veterans and Canadian Forces members in elementary and high school classrooms to share their experiences. 

For those who want to discuss the war with their children, Reid suggests that — after educating themselves on the fundamentals — parents try to break down the conversation into a few essential points, explaining the relationship between the two countries and how Canadians can relate to the conflict using other familial experiences. 

WATCH | Canadians with loved ones in Ukraine express solidarity:

Canadians express solidarity with Ukraine

Canadians with loved ones in Ukraine are speaking out against Russia’s invasion, holding rallies and prayer services across the country. 2:05

Teachers and other educators can raise the subject matter in a group context so that a variety of perspectives are heard. Online forums work well for children who are shy. For kids who are exposed to gruesome images in video games and on television, the key is to keep them grounded in the real-world implications of war, Reid said. 

“I’ve seen sometimes people sort of imagine … World War Three, and that’s sort of something that you have to reign things back a bit to keep it in context. I mean, for the moment, Canada is not involved in this, except in a sort of secondary way,” Reid said. 

Reid said that avoiding “jingoism and demonization” is essential.

“I think it’s very important to remember and highlight that we’re all human beings, and we have complex motivations and interests, and we can have our good moments and bad moments,” he said. “And so there is this tribalism that often kicks in, particularly in these very stressful periods, like what we’re going through now.”

Think of ways to help

According to Sara Austin, CEO of Children First Canada, an advocacy organization for Canadian youth, conversations about war should be tailored to a child’s level of maturity and their interest in the topic.

She suggests thinking beforehand about what values you will reinforce during the discussion.

Sara Austin, founder of Children First Canada, says conversations about war should be suited to a child’s level of maturity and their interest in the topic. (CBC)

“One way to help kids of all ages cope with stressful situations like this can be to focus on what they can do, and how they can help,” Austin told CBC News in an email. “Feeling a sense of agency and knowing that you are contributing positively can have a very positive impact on your child’s sense of wellbeing.”

Ohana is working with students who want to donate money to Ukrainians, and will lead discussions with a hopeful tone, offering stories of people perservering in Ukraine and people in Russia who are challenging their government’s actions.

“It’s really more about building up critical thinking skills, having that emotional connection of, yes, there are people struggling in the world and we need to think about them and perhaps support them in some way, but without getting into xenophobia and violence and even glorification” of war, she said.

Saleem said that with the stress of COVID-19, she does not want her children to feel anxious about the war in Ukraine. Her priority is to make her children feel safe before introducing more complicated ideas.

“It’s a scary world that we live in. It’s a scary topic,” she said. “But as a parent, the first thing you want to do is make sure your child feels secure and safe and loved, and that their mental health is preserved.”

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