By Kimberly Witt
After news broke of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, my 17-year-old son texted our family chat with a three-word question: World War 3? My husband and I quickly responded with texted reassurances, and we’ve had several follow-up conversations with both of our sons.
Because of smartphones and social media, our teens often know breaking news before we do, which led me to wonder how my wise mom friends were handling these tough conversations with their teens. As always, they were a treasure trove of advice.
Advice for Talking About Current Events with Teens
“We are being honest about what is happening and our feelings about it. Anger, fear, sadness,” says Emily Leabch, mom of two teens. She concludes, “Honesty really is the best policy.”
Like Emily, my husband and I try not to sugarcoat these discussions in our house. My sons, ages 17 and 18, recently asked difficult questions about democracy, war crimes, and sanctions. We answered matter-of-factly, researching more information when we didn’t know all the details.
Being honest doesn’t mean we need to overwhelm our teens with constant talk about war. As Meegan Hall shares of her 15-year-old daughter, “Do I tell her every worry I have about it all? No, but the door is open for discussions, and she will ask us if there are any updates.”
Use humor when it fits.
When Traci Hildebrandt-Smith’s 19-year-old son worried he would “die in a hole in Ukraine,” she talked him down and then pivoted to humor. He’s now coping by sending memes.
This method of using humor during troubling times can work, as proven in a 2011 study from Stanford. Researchers found that subjects who improvised positive jokes about negative images experienced “both increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions.”
There is, however, a dark side to meme culture that can trivialize suffering, so we must teach our teens it’s never okay to laugh at another’s despair. Appropriate laughter—in addition to sitting with and validating our fear and sadness—is good for our physical and mental health.
Find age-appropriate news for teens and tweens.
Like me, my mom friends grew up before social media. We learned about world conflicts by reading newspapers delivered to our houses and watching the nightly evening news. Now, our teens are bombarded with excessive sources. Some moms I talked with try to find news sources that make sense to their teens, depending on their ages.
For younger teens, The Week Junior is a subscription news magazine written for kids ages 8-14. Similarly, BBC Newsround is geared toward kids. Adults and teens might appreciate the succinct journalism on CNN 10. If your teens are watching any of these short-form news programs in school, it can be helpful to watch them yourself, too, so you can frame conversations accordingly.
Talk about misinformation.
As much information as we have at our fingertips, we all know misinformation abounds. Meegan Hall recognizes this and has conversations with her daughter accordingly, recognizing that TikTok could especially be “the hotspot for misinformation” on this topic.
For teens who get most, if not all, of their news from social media, this is an essential part of the conversation. Common Sense Media shares some helpful tips on this subject, and Newsweek provides suggestions specific to the situation in Ukraine.
It’s also a good idea to discuss verifying information before sharing it on social media, advice many adults would do well to live by, as well.
Let them know you can relate.
When Karen Solas noticed that her tween daughter was experiencing anxiety from talk of war, she found a way to connect. With the help of a tweet, she explained to her daughter that she experienced similar fears when she was growing up. Solas told me, “I think my daughter’s anxiety went down the tiniest bit just knowing that we’ve been in a similar place.”
Their family, like ours, tries to frame this conversation with a delicate balance—recognizing and being grateful that here in America we’ll likely get through this experience with no direct impact, while acknowledging that the same cannot be said for “so many in Ukraine who will not or have not,” as Solas said.
Our fears and anxieties pale in comparison to those living in makeshift bomb shelters or saying worried, hurried goodbyes to loved ones. Ultimately, though, it helps our teens to know they aren’t alone in their discomfort.
Be a helper.
We’ve all heard Mr. Rogers’ wise advice to look for the helpers in times of stress. That applies here, too. Irene Johnson, mom of one teen son, says she’s “also seeking opportunities to be a helper in some way.” Dr. Robyn Silverman confirms helping others gives our kids “a feeling of agency.” Listening to lots of negative news stories can make us all feel distraught and helpless, but taking action helps.
In our family, we talk about and model being generous with our time and money. I realized those lessons had an impact this week when one of my sons gathered up a generous amount of his own spending money and asked me to send it to a specific organization serving meals to Ukrainians. The next day, I sent his money and a chunk of my own, showing him the receipt when he came home from school. His smile said it all.
Perhaps you can look at a list of organizations providing aid in Ukraine with your teens and together decide where to make a donation.
Call in reinforcements when needed.
Our teens have been experiencing mental health crises at unprecedented levels since the beginning of the pandemic, and news of a potential world war certainly doesn’t help. If your teen is feeling seriously depressed and/or anxious, it’s time to get help.
There is no shame in reaching out. My wise mom friends would certainly agree.