How to Talk to Your Kids About the Refugee Crisis

Talking to your child about what's happening in Afghanistan and other refugees around the world can feel daunting. Here's how experts recommend you tackle this tough topic.

An image of an Afghan woman carrying a child getting her temperature checked.
An Afghan woman carrying a child gets her temperature checked at Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid upon their arrival. A plane with 290 evacuees from Afghanistan has landed at Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid. In total, 1105 people evacuated from the Asian country have landed in Spain since the Taliban seized power. Photo: Getty Images.

With the Taliban seizing power of Afghanistan, the number of displaced Afghans has jumped 53 percent in two weeks, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The escalating situation adds to already devastating refugee crisis globally. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 82.4 million people around the globe have been forced to flee their homes. Nearly 26.4 million of them are refugees, with about half under the age of 18.

The crisis can be tough for anyone to grapple with and explain, but it's possible your child has questions that you'd like to answer in the best way you can. "It is natural and biologically-driven, that as parents, we want to protect our children from stress and hearing about difficult things," acknowledges Jessica L. Griffin, Psy.D., the executive director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) Child Trauma Training Center. "Unfortunately, there are times in which we have to talk with our kids about difficult subjects that are hard for even the grown-ups to wrap our heads around, such as the Afghan refugee crisis."

Here's how Dr. Griffin and other experts recommend talking to children about what's happening.

How to Get Started

A good first step is sorting through your own thoughts and feelings about what you've heard and seen happening involving refugees in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world, says Jennifer King, DSW, LISW, assistant professor and the assistant director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at Case-Western University. "Seek out information to fill in gaps in your own knowledge," she advises.

You'll want to ask yourself what is it that you want your child to know about what is happening, says Dr. Griffin. Get comfortable with whatever it is you're conveying, such as whether there's a "life lesson" you want to teach your child in addition to the facts.

It's also important to remember that talking to children about difficult topics, such as what's happening in Afghanistan or another tragedy, involves providing factual information that is developmentally-appropriate while also being mindful of the variety of feelings children may have, says Dr. Griffin. She suggests acknowledging that the crisis is terrible, and "it is OK to have strong—or 'big'—feelings about it such as worry, confusion, sadness, and anger."

If your child is in elementary school:

For kids who are 7 or younger, Dr. Griffin advises that you refrain from speaking about war or other difficult topics unless they bring it up.

If they have brought it up or they're older, you can kick off a conversation with your child by asking open-ended questions about what they've already seen or heard, listening carefully to their responses, suggests Dr. King.

"Elementary school-aged children are likely to have lots of questions, so it is really a personal decision about how much you want them to know," she notes. "Share facts and also stories of hope, inspiration, and resilience by talking about organizations and entities working to support refugee resettlement."

You can also steer them toward "looking for helpers," as Fred Rogers famously advised. That might involve learning about role models like human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

And don't underestimate the power of keeping it short and straightforward. "You might say something as simple as, 'People are fighting far away about who should be in charge. It is far away from us, but it is still a big deal,'" notes Dr. Griffin.

An image of Afghan refugee women during a protest.
Afghan refugee women raise hands, hold placards and chant slogans during a protest in front of UNHCR office at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Hundreds of Afghan refugees staged a demonstration in front of the United Nation High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) office at Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Getty Images.

If your child is a tween or teen:

If your tween or teen asks specifically about the refugee crisis in Afghanistan, as they might do if they're reading the news and social media, Dr. Griffin suggests to share the following:

  • In Afghanistan, there are a large number of people who have been "displaced" or are "refugees," meaning that it is not safe for them to return home.
  • Many of them are trying to leave their country as it may not be safe, and they are trying to find a new place to live.

Understanding the narrative your tween has already received is vital, says Dr. King. "You want to check in about images or videos they may have come across, whether that's via the news or social media," she says. "Let them tell you how they feel, validate their feelings, and do not minimize them."

You can also use this as an opportunity to talk about where your child is getting their information from, address concerns they might have, and provide as much factually correct information as is necessary to correct misconceptions.

Teens, on the other hand, might want a bit more. "They look for contradiction and complexity in social issues, and they may want to know what you're doing about them," says Dr. King. "Focus on what they can do or what you can do together. Maybe that's learning more about the issues facing those seeking asylum, participating in a community event, or organizing a drive at school."

According to Dr. Griffin, a few other action steps you can encourage your teen to take:

  • Write a letter to your congressperson or other government official.
  • Have a lemonade stand or small fundraiser to raise money for victims of tragic events.
  • Research another way to advocate and express their concerns.
An image of an Afghan woman and her children in Kabul.
Farzia, 28, who lost her husband in Baghlan to fighting by the Taliban sits with her children, Subhan, 5, and Ismael , 2, in a tent at a makeshift IDP camp in Share-e-Naw park to various mosques and schools in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images.

Provide Helpful Resources

Books, stories, and other forms of media can help to both educate kids and tap into their capacity for empathy and understanding, says Dr. King.

Consider checking out the following resources:

BookTrust: It has great lists of books about the refugee experience for younger kids, tweens, and teens, says Dr. King.

National Geographic for Kids: The popular magazine has a site built just for children that may be used to explain the situation in age-appropriate ways, says Dr. Griffin.

USA for UNHCR: Earlier this summer, the organization released an animated video of Abdallah's story—a young refugee from Iraq who resettled in Atlanta and is now a U.S. citizen and medical school student. The short film is narrated by Abdallah and features some of his music.

And the organization also suggests checking out its younger children's book list, school children book list, and YA book list.

Emphasize Your Child's Safety

No matter how you cover the challenging topic with your child, Dr. Griffin encourages parents to bear the following in mind: "The Afghan crisis may raise concerns in your child as to whether something like this could happen to them in their own backyards—particularly as children tend to personalize things. As parents, we may need to be concrete and tell them, the 'war is far away' and emphasize their own physical safety. At the end of the day, children need to know that they are safe, loved, and that the adults are doing what they can to ensure that is the case."

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