How armed conflict affects children in Ukraine & around the world
May 20, 2022
As Russia’s war on Ukraine rages into its third month, you may be grappling with several questions: What’s happening to the children of Ukraine? How do I talk to my own kids about this? Is there anything we can do to help?
We are sharing this article to shed light on the plight of children in Ukraine and areas of conflict around the world, along with information about how to respond to your children’s questions about Ukraine. We also share a bit about how you can make an impact in the lives of children who are suffering the devastating effects of armed conflict.
War in Ukraine and its impact on children
The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on the country’s 7.5 million children. According to UNICEF,1 humanitarian needs are multiplying “by the hour.” Children are being killed, wounded, displaced, and traumatized by constant violence. Families are acting from a place of survival -- they don’t know what’s going to happen or what they’ll do next. They’re terrified and desperate for safety.
This desperation has led to a flood of over 5.7 million refugees from Ukraine into Poland, Moldova, Romania, and other Western countries, as of April 21. Ninety percent of those are women and children, because men are staying to join the fight. Millions more women and children have been displaced within Ukraine.
Displaced and refugee children are at greater risk of human trafficking and exploitation. Children who are still in Ukraine are in ever-increasing danger, as Russia’s assault is moving closer to urban areas, with attacks using explosives landing closer to homes, schools, water and power systems, and hospitals.
Armed conflict around the world
Russia’s war in Ukraine is a massive humanitarian crisis that has captured the world’s attention, but it is far from the only armed conflict that’s endangering children. According to the United Nations2, 1.6 billion children (69%) were living in a conflict-affected country in 2019, and approximately 426 million children (over one in six) were living in a conflict zone.
Countries with ongoing armed conflicts, where children are the most unsafe, include Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, DRC, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Sudan, and Central African Republic.3 In Yemen alone, a child dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.4 Due to prolonged civil conflict that escalated dramatically in 2015, over 1.7 million children in Yemen have been driven from their homes and over 70% of the country is in need of humanitarian aid.4
Millions of children in areas of armed conflict, many of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their families, are being displaced. Displaced children are at a high risk of grave violations in and around camps, and other areas of refuge. In general, children living in war-affected countries live in constant fear, experiencing grave violations of their rights, their childhoods stolen. Countless children have grown up knowing nothing but war and conflict.
Further, the psychological impacts of conflict have lifelong consequences. According to Save the Children, the kind of prolonged stress these children are under, called ‘toxic stress,’ increases the likelihood of negative impacts on children’s development and health problems later in life. The prolonged activation of stress hormones in early childhood can reduce neural connections in areas of the brain dedicated to learning and reasoning, affecting children’s abilities to perform later in their lives. In this way, conflict imposes a huge social cost on future generations.5
How to answer your children’s questions about war
The impacts of war on children are startling and grim, as is the news coming from Ukraine: bombings directed at civilians, fleeing citizens, terror and loss of life. How do you respond, then, to your own children’s questions, while taking care not to provoke their fear and anxiety?
The most important thing you can do is listen to their thoughts and concerns. While your instinct may be to avoid talking about war to protect your child, most children, especially older ones, are hearing about it anyway. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website Healthychildren.org, “Being silent about the war won't protect children from what happened—it will only prevent them from understanding and coping with it. Not communicating about what is happening in the war may actually increase anxiety, leading children to imagine that there are more dangerous and personally threatening events about to occur.”6
A good starting place is to ask what your child has heard, and respond to their concern. With younger children, it might sound like this: “oh my, it would be scary to hear that,” and then explain that they are safe, emphasizing that the war is happening far away. Vagueness is better with very young children: “sometimes even adults forget how to be kind and that can lead to fighting, which hurts people and is very sad.”
With elementary age children, it’s best to raise the topic when they bring it up first, and then to answer their questions with simple, direct, honest responses. Don’t share more information than necessary to answer their questions, and provide reassurance and support for their feelings.
Pre-teens and teens will be more interested, and you can initiate discussions to help your child understand how these situations begin and escalate, and how they affect ordinary people. This can lead to family conversations about how to help.
UNICEF and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
UNICEF is on the ground helping Ukraine’s children and children in countries of conflict around the world, and it’s consistently rated as one of the best charities to donate to. Less than 3% of funds raised go to administrative costs. You can read a story about the conflict in Ukraine from a child’s-eye view, and donate to UNICEF, here.
UNICEF's work is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). According to the UN’s website, “The Convention is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. It changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity. The unprecedented acceptance of the Convention clearly shows a wide global commitment to advancing children’s rights.” The Convention has led to much progress in improving children’s circumstances around the world, including in declining infant mortality and increasing school enrollment, but clearly much remains to be done.
While UNICEF is a renowned, effective and proven organization, you may want to take care with donating to other lesser-known groups or organizations specifically to support people in Ukraine. Experts advise that donating in time of war can be complicated, and providing humanitarian aid in the context of war is notoriously difficult. It’s tricky to get donations to people the most in need, due to lack of humanitarian corridors and access through war-torn areas. After immediate events, it’s often later shown that money was misspent.
If you want to give, donating to an established charity with consistent, successful efforts to improve children’s lives will ensure your dollars are making an impact. Save the Children is another reputable charity working with children around the world.
Other ways to help
Citizens in countries bordering Ukraine can help by taking in refugees, but here in the U.S., one of the most impactful things we can do as citizens of a democracy is to be politically active. Supporting strong sanctions, accepting refugees and giving military aid to Ukraine are tangible ways to help, because the United States can make a remarkable difference in those ways.
Furthermore, you can discuss with your older children ways that they can make an impact via their career paths. Positions in world politics, such as foreign service as an ambassador, provide a tangible way to contribute to world diplomacy and peace. Additionally, working for a nonprofit like those listed above, joining the military, or becoming a legal advocate all provide opportunities to make a difference.