How to Talk to Kids About Nuclear Weapons

The idea of talking to your kids about nuclear weapons might make your head spin, especially if are feeling anxious yourself. Experts help break down how to talk to kids about something as big as the threat of a nuclear attack.

Dad talking to kid
Photo: Getty Images/The Good Brigade

For anyone who remembers the Cold War era, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with threats of using nuclear weapons, may send a chill down your spine. In recent American history, there was a time when schoolchildren were drilled on how to survive a nuclear attack and taught how to hide under school desks. Movie images of Dr. Strangelove's end-of-time bomb going off and annihilating the entire world in seconds may flicker in the emotional backdrop of current fear around where the world stands on the use of nukes.

But modern nuclear weapons are not the same as how the media depicted them 40 years ago; a lot has changed. And while schools are not drilling kids on radiation fallout, many parents are concerned about what a current Russian nuclear threat means and, more importantly, how to talk to our kids about it.

What Is the Nuclear War Threat?

Russia has three types of weapons that are causing fear: chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Of the five nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—Russia has the largest known stockpile of nuclear warheads, currently tallied at around 6,000 in 2022. But, roughly 1,500 of those are retired or will be retired. Of the remaining nuclear warheads, 1,185 are intercontinental ballistic missiles and are deployed on bases or at sea around the world. These are capable of hitting targets in the United States. There are also 800 submarine-launched missiles, deployed at bases or at sea, and 580 air-launched from nuclear bombers deployed at bases or at sea.

Many experts agree that the threat of a nuclear war is very low, but it is never at zero, and given the current fragility of geopolitics, in addition to a non-stop newsfeed covering every angle of a possible threat of war, it is no wonder that parents are worried. According to a recent Associated Press poll, 61 percent of Americans are extremely concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and 45 percent of Americans are extremely concerned that Russia will aim its nukes at the United States.

How To Start the Conversation About Nuclear Weapons

Make it a positive conversation

So parents are left reading the news and wondering what will happen next, but also wondering just how much their kids truly understand about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential use of nuclear weapons. It may feel like the optimistically safe choice for some not to bring up the threat of war and hope that our kids are distracted enough by being kids that they won't notice. But you won't be doing your child any favors by keeping them uninformed.

"At this point, there is no shielding our children from this kind of news. They are already discussing it in school, on the web, and in related internet chats," says Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., ABPP, board-certified clinical psychologist and associate professor of behavior medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. "As parents and families, we should be in charge of a positive and therapeutic narrative. It is important that we ask them what it is they do know about these global issues and then enter into productive discussions that do not scare them but educate them. It is a lack of knowledge that may feed into their own personal, anxiety-fueled narratives."

Manage your own fear

Kids are a lot smarter and more aware than many adults will give them credit for, so it is wise to make a plan for talking to your kids about nuclear weapons and the potential threat of war. And that could mean managing your own fears and stress first.

"Parents can treat this new fear the same way we would advise coping with any stressor: If the worry is about something they can change, they could problem-solve how to change it (e.g., through political action)," says Dina Hirshfeld-Becker, Ph.D., co-director of the Child Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "If the worry is about something they can't change, the best strategy is to focus on how to cope with the worry."

Dr. Hirshfeld-Becker suggests parents who are stressed or fearful can use coping mechanisms such as mindfulness and staying in the moment, breathing exercises, or activities that get the body moving, such as walking.

Let your child take the lead

Experts advise parents to follow their kid's lead and only offer as much information as they are asking for. "Especially with younger children, avoid exposing them to information that could be traumatic," says Dr. Hirshfeld-Becker. "With a preschooler or kindergartener, the parent might wait to raise the topic until they get a direct question and then answer simply and ask about the child's feelings. With older children who might have more exposure to media or to current events at school, the parent might open with a general question, such as, 'What have you been hearing about the war?'"

Be honest

Giving your child the opportunity to guide the conversation gives them room to express their feelings and sort out ideas, but it also gives them ample opportunity to tune in to how you are feeling. Dr. Gardere points out that it may not be wise to try to have all the answers, even if that may be a natural parental urge.

Research has shown that children can determine or sense when adults are not telling them the truth, and even omitting parts of the truth. "This then results in a lack of trust on the part of the kids," says Dr. Gardere. "Therefore, it is essential that parents be truthful as to what they know and what they don't know. It is OK to say to a child, 'I don't have an answer for your question.'"

Focus on what you can control

And sure, it is frightening not to be able to tell your child definitively that the world isn't a scary place where bad things can happen. But there are some things that you can control, which can go a long way in diffusing anxieties. Dr. Gardere suggests using a tone that models the emotional temperament you want your child to use in a positive and realistic way. It's OK to be optimistic with your kids, but that's not the same as being in denial of the things you fear.

"It is also important to let children know that we cannot control many things that happen in the outside world; however, we do have much more control as to what happens within our own families, especially when it comes to keeping them safe as much as possible and providing support and love on a continual basis," explains Dr. Gardere. "This will go very far in maintaining their emotional balance and health even with the dangers of global conflicts."

Talk often, especially with military kids

For kids in military families, the threat of a nuclear attack or war hit closer to home. When mom or dad may realistically get deployed, these kids may worry the most.

"I believe in this case that parents need to begin preparing their children for the possibility that they may be deployed," says Dr. Gardere. "It should not be one heart-to-heart conversation, but a series of small conversations that are not so heavy but are informative."

Know the signs of anxiety in kids

Dr. Hirshfeld-Becker explains that conversations with particularly worried kids sometimes don't always stop with words. A child can express their fears in many ways, but some of the big ones are also classic cues that might be easy to spot by parents.

"Signs that a child may be struggling with anxiety and in need of treatment include changes in sleep, withdrawing from activities or friends, changes in their ability to concentrate or participate in school, preoccupation with worries—for example, repeated questions and constant bids for reassurance—or frequent physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches," she says. "A good starting place if parents notice these symptoms is their child's pediatrician, as they may have mental health providers they can refer to or may be able to start treatment themselves."

The Bottom Line

It can make you feel powerless and be nerve-wracking knowing that we can't control the outside world. But with some steps toward taking care of our own mental and emotional health and being open and compassionate with our kids, we create safe spaces in our families where the fear of nuclear weapons—or anything else for that matter—doesn't reign king over our lives.

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