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How to talk to your children about war without scaring them

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Last week, U.S. president Donald Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Iran struck back on Wednesday, firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing American troops.

NATO has called for “restraint and de-escalation,” but there’s still much speculation about what will happen next.

The news is saturated with upsetting headlines, and there’s no end in sight.

Unfortunately, even if you shield them from it at home, your children are probably hearing this news from friends, teachers, coaches, or social media. That’s why, in the view of parenting expert Samantha Kemp-Jackson, it’s best to be open and prepared with them.

READ MORE: ‘More than a dozen’ missiles fired at Iraq bases housing U.S. troops, Pentagon says

“In today’s digital era, the days of hiding the frightening truth about global world events from our children are gone,” she said.

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“In times like these, the best way of dealing with world events such as impending wars in foreign lands is to be open to your children’s questions, as well as prepared with answers to the inevitable questions that they will ask.”

She suggests following the news on a regular basis so that you can anticipate your kids’ questions.

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“Proactive discussions with your children around the dinner table, at breakfast, or even when you’re out in the car dropping them off to hockey practice can ease the way into these important discussions that are so needed in today’s world,” said Kemp-Jackson.

Talking to your kids about a big, scary topic like war in a foreign country can be daunting.

Here, parenting experts share their tips for making it easier on you and your child.

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Be honest, but provide context

As with many parenting challenges, “honesty is the best policy,” said Kemp-Jackson.

“Yes, there may be tensions that are escalating in foreign lands, however, there are many adults around the world that don’t want war to happen,” she said.

“For children, it is comforting for them to know that there are more people who don’t want war to happen than do, and that they will do everything in their power to avert the worst case scenario.”

READ MORE: Trump’s Soleimani killing the latest blow to allies’ trust in United States: experts

Parenting expert Ann Douglas believes putting the news in context in an age-appropriate way is key.

“A six-year-old who hears scary comments about missiles being fired doesn’t have any way of knowing whether or not those missiles are hitting the ground down the street or around the world,” she said.

“They’re counting on you to put things in context and to provide some much-needed support and reassurance.”

Be available

A big part of supporting your children is to allow them to ask questions about the world around them.

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“In heightened political times, particularly when the word ‘war’ is being transmitted across most news and digital channels, the questions will come more frequently and with more urgency,” said Kemp-Jackson.

“In these instances, it’s paramount that parents are available to answer these questions as best as they can, even if that means giving an indeterminate answer.”

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In Douglas’ view, being available and open to questions will signal to your children that you’re “carrying these worries” for them.

“Your kid will be more likely to let go of the worry if you promise him or her that you’ll let them know if the situation changes and there’s reason to be worried,” she said.

“They need to know that they can count on you to be honest and to keep them informed. If the situation changes and the danger becomes more immediate, you’ll tell them”

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Pay attention to your own mental health

A big part of ensuring your children remain calm is keeping your own mental health in check.

“What does this mean in practical terms? It means figuring out what works best to bring your anxiety levels down when the news is just plain stressing you out,” Douglas said.

She believes there’s a massive difference between being “informed” and being “immersed” in current events.

READ MORE: Canadian military personnel in Iraq safe after base targeted in Iran missile strikes

“Don’t be afraid to hit the pause button on your news feed and to help your kids to do the same if you find yourself feeling really anxious and perhaps a little hopeless or cynical, too,” she said.

“If you find it too difficult to unplug from the news completely,  at least make an effort to consume a more balanced media diet. Instead of just fixating on the latest bad news, deliberately seek out stories of people doing kind and heroic things or communities responding with strength and resilience in the wake of disaster.”

Share these stories with your kids and help them understand that disasters can also bring out the best in people, not just the worst.

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If you don’t have the answers…

It’s likely that, at some point, you won’t know what’s going to happen — and that’s okay, too.

According to child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, it’s critical to remind your kids that they have you.

“This means you be the answer even if you don’t have the answers,” she said.

READ MORE: How to talk to children about violence and terrorism

“So when the impossible questions come, don’t panic about knowing the right answer or about not having an answer, you be it. It’s about the certainty with which you speak, the confidence in your eyes, the matter-of-factness all about you as you easily move on to zipping up their jacket or squeezing toothpaste onto their toothbrush.”

“All of [this] communicating ‘I’ve got you, my love, and we will get this sorted. You’ll see.'”

— With files from Mercedes Stephenson, James Armstrong & the Associated Press

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Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca