Heather Whitaker, center, leads a discussion on Ukraine while teaching social studies at Gorham Middle School on Wednesday. ShawnPatrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Usually, Heather Whitaker likes to flip on the TV after dinner to catch a few minutes of the news. But these days, if her kids walk in the room while she’s watching, she shuts it off. The news about Ukraine is too much for her children, ages 8 and 12, to handle.  

“You need to know what is developmentally appropriate and then you need to know your child,” she said.  

Heather Whitaker says she fields questions from students and helps them process the war in Ukraine by framing it in a historical context and trying to help them feel safe. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Her children, she said, are not ready for the stream of graphic images that have been flashing across the news media since Russia invaded Ukraine last month.  

As the war unfolds, children are hearing and seeing things about the conflict from family members or friends, on social media or from the news media. The information can be difficult for children to process, especially if they’re hearing about it second-hand from peers rather than from adults who understand what information is or isn’t appropriate and can answer questions to help children wrap their heads around the situation.

The Press Herald spoke with parents, educators and adolescent mental health professionals about how to explain the war to children and the ways in which they are supporting children trying to comprehend it.   

It’s important to keep conversations fact-based, to consider the age and sensitivities of specific children, and to let kids guide conversations with their questions by doing more listening than speaking, experts say. The information can be difficult for children, even traumatic, and it’s important to not expose them to more graphic images or information than they can process without trying to deny what’s happening.


Whitaker’s 12-year-old knows there is a conflict and Whitaker has framed discussions with him about the war around democracy and government. “I try to keep the conversations factual,” she said. “He is a kid that wouldn’t sleep if I were to fully show him everything. He would have nightmares.” 

She’s taking a similar approach with her seventh- and eighth-grade students at Gorham Middle School. 

Heather Whitaker’s class watches CNN10 at Gorham Middle School on Wednesday. The 10-minute news show for children included a segment on Ukraine. ShawnPatrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

There, she’s fielding questions from students and helping them process the war by framing it in a historical context while trying to help them feel safe, she said.  

Her class also has been keeping track of the conflict by watching 10-minute news segments specifically designed for children, something they have done since the beginning of the school year.  

But for both her students and her children, Whitaker says she is careful to follow their lead by listening to their questions and conversations, focusing on the facts and trying to make them feel safe, all of which is best practice for adolescents of all ages, experts say. 

“Your children are going to be exposed to what is going on anyway, so it’s probably good to have a dialogue,” said Jeffrey Barkin, a Portland-based psychiatrist and president of the Maine Medical Association. 


While it’s important to give children a safe space to process distressing information, Barkin said it’s also crucial to take a cautious approach to these conversations to avoid trauma.    

One way to do that is to meet children at their cognitive and emotional levels by letting them guide conversations, he said.  


“Adults should limit the amount they talk and instead listen to specific concerns, ask children if they’re OK, and be sensitive and straightforward,” he said.  

Barkin conceded that this is not an easy feat, especially for parents fighting the instinct to protect their children, but that it’s best to avoid the tendency to shield kids. “When you don’t speak with children you can’t protect them,” Barkin said. “We are surrounded by information.”  

While it might not be possible to completely guard children against the news of the world, it’s important to consider their age, personality and unique sensitivities when sharing information, explained Barkin.  


Some children might not be ready to process particularly graphic or gruesome images, for example. For particularly vulnerable kids, including children with intellectual disabilities or schizophrenia, it might be best not to share any information at all about the crisis in Ukraine, he said.   

According to a 2015 peer-reviewed study published by the British Psychological Society, you don’t have to be physically present at a traumatic event to be impacted psychologically. People of all ages can develop psychological illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder from viewing graphic images or videos, the study found.  

It’s important to limit children’s exposure to a constant barrage of media and alarming images, said Jim Babcock, the lead psychologist for Old Orchard Beach schools.  

“Essentially, we don’t want kids to feel unnecessarily unsafe,” said Babcock, who has been working in the mental health field for almost 30 years.  


Babcock said parents should look for clues about what their children want to talk about. “Don’t assume that every kid is experiencing distress or needs to talk about it,” he said. “Just open that door.”  


Other Maine teachers have framed their conversations about Ukraine through historical and humanitarian lenses, teaching their students about past global conflicts, compassion and humanitarian aid.  

Dena McFarland, a teacher of 27 years at Greely Middle school in Cumberland, has been responding to her fourth- and fifth-grade student’s questions about Ukraine by teaching them about how they can help the people who are suffering. 

She is basing some of her discussions around the Mr. Rogers quote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  

Another teacher at her school is holding a read-a-thon to raise money for UNICEF.

Jesse Hargrove, a Hermon High School economics, current events and personal finance teacher, said Ukraine has come up in all of his classes in different ways depending on the subject matter. For example, his personal finance class has discussed how the crisis in Ukraine is impacting the U.S. economy. In his current events class, his students have been drawing connections between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the tension between mainland China and Hong Kong and discussing what it means to be a political leader at this time. “I’m proud of them for being aware of what is going on,” Hargrove said.  



His students are glad to be knowledgeable about what is happening in Ukraine. Koda Allen, a junior in Hargrove’s class, said he enjoys learning about current events rather than learning history in the traditional format because what he’s learning about has a greater impact on his life.

“It’s important because you need to know what’s going on in the world rather than be in the dark and learn things through rumors,” he said.

Lately, the class has been discussing how political leaders react to world events and make decisions.

Allen had never kept track of the news before, but since Russia started placing troops near the border of Ukraine he’s been following the news on his own time in addition to in his current events class.

Regardless of age, it’s important for adults to keep open and ongoing communication with children, said Barkin, the Portland psychiatrist.

“We’re living in a world with more and more trauma, and we have to be mindful of checking in with those around us,” he said. “We want to protect kids from distress, we want to protect ourselves from distress. But sometimes you can’t. Denying it doesn’t make it go away.” 

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