How to Talk with Adoptees about the Crisis in Ukraine

By Terry Mandeville

The following is information complied by Terry Mandeville, group admin for the FRUA Facebook Group.  (Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption Incl Neighboring Countries).

How do we talk with our kids about the crisis in Ukraine? You may not want to wait until the child asks a question, because some children worry, without being able to ask or talk about it. Depending upon the behavior you observe, you might be the one to raise the topic.

Your questions of them, and your answers, should be age appropriate. A six-year-old doesn’t need a long explanation about sovereign borders; they might only need to be reassured that America will not be invaded, or that organizations are trying to keep their birth family safe.

First, be aware and acknowledge your own emotions on the subject. Children of all ages pick up on this and may be responding accordingly. Whenever possible it seems to work best to listen to your child before talking to him/her. An open-ended question allows the child to take the lead and address the areas that worry her/him the most, such as “What do you think about what has been going on in Ukraine?”

There are also many children’s books that may be a good way to start off a conversation. Boris Gindis, Ph.D. suggests that our responses should depend upon the child’s age, his/her association with a country (Russia or Ukraine), and the degree of personal significance of this issue.

For younger children (up to the age of 7) Dr. Gindis suggests that “it could be explained as a ‘quarrel between two countries as it happens in a family sometimes’”. For pre-adolescents, he believes, “it depends on their degree of involvement; it could be a brief formal remark that it is all politics, and because of turmoil in Ukraine the Russian government took away some land from Ukraine. Try to convey that this was government, not people, who did this”.

And with the older children – adolescent and young adults, “You have to share your own views on this situation and sincerely express your feelings and ask them about theirs”.

Deborah D. Gray, MSW, Nurturing Attachments Therapist, and author of Attaching Through Love, Hugs and Play; Simple Strategies to Help Build Connections with Your Child, Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents and Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience After Neglect and Trauma, suggests a guided discussion with kids along these lines: “What do you do if you have two friends, from two different soccer teams, who are arguing? Suppose they are arguing over one of the fields. One of the teams is signed up, but the other team gets on the field and will not leave. Do you have to take sides? Suppose you and the rest of your friends used to play on one team or the other but are on a new team now. Should you split your team up, taking sides, depending on the team you used to play on? Or, would it be better to keep your team strong?

This is a little bit like the current problem between Russia and the Ukraine. Some of the kids from FRUA are from Ukraine, some from Russia. Do you have to take sides? Or, would it be better to enjoy being of the US/FRUA team and keep a good relationship with everybody?

There are many points of view over the Crimea Region. Maybe you would like to study the situation, forming an opinion. But no matter what opinion you form, you can still respect the culture of both countries and enjoy your friends in FRUA”

Depending upon the age of your child, many questions may enter her mind, which she/he may become anxious about, but may not voice. These unasked questions may relate to identity, to safety for her/himself and others he/she vaguely remembers or include the broad question of why people or countries fight.

Even though this conflict is very scary to hear about, reassure your child that they are safe. Start with the barebones basics. That may be all they need or want, or they may ask follow-up questions. Normalize and validate fears and emotion. Giving kids permission to feel a certain way is the first step to them expressing what’s going on.

Share information about the war. Some examples of things one might choose to say to our children about the crisis in Ukraine. Showing your child a world map and teaching them facts about Ukraine and Russia and their cultures can demystify the event. You can talk about the history of each country and a summary of the conflict. You might start by asking “Tell me what you know about ‘war’?” … and go from there. If they ask questions that you do not know the answers to, you can look up it up together.

“There are some soldiers who are going into Ukraine without permission and a lot of people around the world are upset about it. This is happening far away, so we are safe here, but that doesn’t stop us from worrying.” “The representatives of many countries are talking with one another and trying to find a peaceful way to settle these issues. We do not yet know what will happen.” “We do not always have the answers. I understand that not knowing what might happen can be scary. Whatever happens, I am always here for you. You can always come to me and ask questions, which I will do my best to answer honestly. You can always tell me if you are sad or scared and we will talk about it.”

“Feelings of confusion, anger and sadness are emotions that we all experience from time to time. It might be helpful for you to share these feelings with me.” “This may be a good time to learn more about geography. Ask to see an Atlas. This is where you can learn about maps & about why the borders of countries change. See if you can see why some countries are invaded, which have natural protections, which countries have started wars, which have been conquered time after time, & why this might be so.

Geography is closely related to the world’s history.” Ukraine shares a long and complicated history with Russia. Explaining this can be convoluted and confusing. Facts to cover might include:

  • The Crimea & Eastern Ukraine have a long history that is intertwined with Russia’s.
  • Western Ukraine’s culture & history is more aligned with the other countries of Eastern Europe.
  • The territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia remains very complicated. Which portions of Ukraine may become part of Russia is unknown.

Adoptees may wonder if they will ever be able to visit their homelands. Although the present time might not be a good time to go to the area, we can reassure our children that we hope this will change soon. If in the USA, your family should check the U.S. State Department websites for alerts related to adoption and travel, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues and the Department of Immigration, as they are in the best position to determine these answers.

Children who were adopted from neighboring countries may wonder if this affects their homelands and/or birth family. At this time there is no indication of any difficulties with other countries related to this problem between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Again, your family should always check the State Department website for alerts related to adoption and travel.

Children who were adopted from Ukraine or Russia may wonder if they will be drafted into the military to fight. A young man or woman having citizenship and residing permanently in one country cannot be drafted into the military by another country, even if they have dual citizenship The latest information that we have gathered is that young men who were adopted from Ukraine or Russia and live in another country cannot serve in the Ukrainian army because they became permanent residents of another country as minors.

The rule in Russia has heretofore been that Russian citizens who are residents of another country are not “entitled” to serve in the Russian military either. However, it is important to keep abreast of the news; during times of war the rules can change suddenly.

Examples of statements to help our children who were adopted from Russia deal with being teased about being Russian?

  • “Your ethnic heritage, and your birth country, are a part of you, but it does not make you who you are.
  • People of any specific heritage are never “bad” because of their ancestry or heritage.
  • The decisions that any country’s government makes, good or bad, do not in any way reflect the character of the people who claim heritage from that country.”
  • “You are an American citizen who happens to have been born in Russia. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, who were born somewhere else, what you make of yourself is up to you.”
  • “The people who call themselves United States citizens, and you are one, have come from every country of the world over the course of over 230 years of existence, and before that as well. Every American’s family history came from somewhere else too, even the Native Americans. You are just a more recent immigrant.”
  • “You may wish to ask your parents or your teacher for help.” “You could turn the question around and ask your classmates if they know from what countries their families originally came. In fact, this could be a good class assignment, to help students understand the diversity that has made our country what it is.”
  • “Your ethnic heritage, and your birth country are a part of you, but it does not account for all of who you are. History tells us that the names and the borders of countries change greatly over decades, or centuries, or over hundreds of years. Our current era is no exception, and the fact that you are an American citizen is a direct result of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
  • “Many adoptees have questions and confusion related to their own identity, especially as it relates to their birth heritage. This situation between Russia and Ukraine can stir up these feelings. It may be helpful to discuss these issues with your family therapist, spiritual advisor, or school counselor. Being able to talk freely about how you feel can help you to work through the issues, see things clearly and grow. It is important for you to feel understood and supported,”

Examples of statements to help our children deal with fears and concern for birth family in Ukraine and/or Russia.

Whether or not your child ever knew her birth family, and depending upon the age of your child, he/she may worry for the safety of people he/she has only heard about as a part of her life story.

  • “Not knowing can be very scary. This is a difficult time for the people in Ukraine and Russia. War is not good for children, or for anyone else for that matter. Many families are moving to areas far away from the conflict to stay safe. For the people who cannot leave there are several organizations and charities that are in the area helping to keep them safe.”

Examples of statements to help our children deal with fears and concern for the “orphanages” in Ukraine.

  • “It has been difficult to get specific information about what is happening in each “orphanage” but several organizations are involved in keeping the children safe. They are finding spaces for the children away from the conflict.”
  • Find ways to take action Parents can find ways for kids to be helpers during a crisis by donating to humanitarian or child-serving causes that help those who are impacted. This can give kids a sense of control and contribution and can lessen anxiety.
  • Manage news and media Kids are sponges. Many times they cannot differentiate between fact and opinion as they are blasted from all sides by social media, TV, radio. Turn off the devices, or limit time. When your children are exposed the news, listen with them – encourage questions and talk about their feelings.

What signs should I look for that this is bothering my child?

  • Look for behavior that is outside of your child’s normal range. A child may exhibit greater than normal signs of anxiety, an inability to settle down to sleep, or to lessons, or suddenly not be able to play calmly with friends.
  • The child’s eating habits might change, she/he might become more withdrawn, or a normally calm child may suddenly become more agitated, pick fights with others, or exhibit self-harming behavior.
  • Be on the look-out for signs that a child might be being teased or bullied by other students about their ethnicity or being either Russian or Ukrainian. These can come up even if your child is from another country, like Bulgaria! A child might not even realize that he/she should tell someone about this.
  • Older children are going to be exposed to information about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia on the Internet or television. Developmental specialists suggest that adults sit down and watch the news with these children so that they can then discuss what is happening and what it means.


How to Talk to Kids and Teens About the Crisis in Ukraine

Student Discussion Guide: Crisis in Ukraine

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Crisis Unfolding in Ukraine

How you can talk to your kids about the crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine conflict: How to help yourself, your kids, and others

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