• Contemporary Conflict
  • Adults
  • Educators
  • Families

Talking to children about ongoing conflict can help them to understand the world around them and provide a chance to discuss difficult subjects and emotions. With 24-hour news and social media, children may already be aware of what is happening and may have questions.

How should you approach a conversation with children about contemporary conflict? How can you be more confident and equipped to address their questions? 

These resources have been developed by IWM Learning staff and are designed to help adults with managing safe and valuable discussions by offering practical tips.

These videos will show you how to set up and manage conversations, find appropriate stories for discussion, and use these stories in your conversation.  They are designed for families and can be used by schools or youth groups.

Top Tips

In this video, hear our top five tips about establishing conversations with children.

Clare Lawlor, Producer, Public Engagement and Learning: Working at Imperial War Museums, we talk about war, including ongoing conflicts, with lots of people. In this video, we discuss our top five tips for having conversations about ongoing conflict with children. At any given time, conflict is happening around the world including places such as Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.  

Ngaire Bushell, Producer, Public Engagement and Learning: As members of IWM’s Learning Team, we are experts in how to set up a safe and supportive environment in order to explore some of the difficult conversations you may wish to have with a child about conflicts that are happening now. 

Clare: This video is aimed at giving practical advice and tips for any adult who wants to have a discussion with children about conflict that is ongoing. This could be a one-to-one conversation between a parent or family member and a child or in a broader learning context between a teacher and a group of children. In this video we'll be discussing our top five tips for having these discussions with children. 

Ngaire: And I think the first of those tips that we identified, is how we inform ourselves. So, taking some time, asking yourself some key questions, really laying the foundations that you can build those conversations with children upon. So, some of the key questions I might have and take to a reputable source might be: “who are the key people involved in this conflict?” “Where is it happening?” “Why is it happening now?” “What are the reasons behind this conflict?” and also really importantly “what the impact on ordinary people that this conflict is having?” as well. And I said reputable there it can be really overwhelming to look at social media feeds and do a quick internet search and some of the information might not be verifiable.

So, I think what I would recommend, is going to one source that you've trusted in the past. So, I think I would go to somewhere that I know has given me good information. What I might uncover might be really overwhelming or quite distressing and cause concerns and I think one of the benefits of being at the museum is having colleagues like you, Clare, that I can go to and talk about these things because what I don't want to happen is to start those conversations with children and find that my emotions are coming to the fore. It should be as much about me listening, as it is me trying to answer questions or explain and I think that's equally important at home. If people have got a good friend, a peer, they discuss those concerns with them first. So that when the conversation happens with the child, it's very objective with as little emotion in there as possible.  

Clare: So, having discussions about ongoing conflict can potentially be an emotionally overwhelming conversation to have with children and that's why here at the museum we think it's really important to have a safe and stable environment that reflects the emotional weight of the conversations that you're having. And that's why we're very lucky to have these incredible learning spaces that we use to engage with students and children who visit the museum. But that doesn't mean that the same design principles that we've used here can't be applied to other areas. Say, for example, in the home.

Now, you can't guarantee that any space will be the perfect environment, but there are some things that you can do to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable to have these discussions in. So, for example, having it free from distractions. So, is the tv on? Is the radio on? Maybe turn that down or turn that off and hopefully having that quiet space allows the time and space to have these discussions with children in. And that also leads on to timing and when to have these discussions and whenever is a right time or the wrong time and, in particular, if you get caught off guard if a child asks you a really big question and you're not expecting it. Has that ever happened to you? 

Ngaire: Well, it's one of those things and you don't want to waste that question either. So, it makes me think of when students first arrive to the museum and it's exciting and there are so many objects and they're firing questions, but we might not have even got to the stage of dropping off their bags, getting rid of their coats, half the class are really distracted, so the timing for those really good questions that come up just isn't the right place or time to address them. So, I always try and make it really clear that they're great questions we want to answer them but hold on to them and we will get to our learning spaces and then you can ask me that again and we'll explore it together. So, letting the child know it's not the wrong time to answer it's just a case of we- it's an important question I'm going to carry it with us and then we really will unpack it because it's a great question. 

Clare: And I guess an example of where that museum practice can be applied to, say, being at home, could be you know if you've picked up a child from school and you're driving back home in the car and they ask you a question about something that they've seen that day something that might have occurred that day or something they've overheard in school and you can say that's a really interesting question why don't we wait until we're back home to have a look at exploring the answer to that. So, that's a good example of how what we do here in the museum can be applied to your conversations at home.  

Ngaire: And I think that really leads well into those other expectations which are that no question is a wasted question or too simple a question, that some questions don't have answers. Sometimes, I am very honest with the children and say that's a question that just leads to lots of other questions. And maybe that's part of the expectations of your conversation with children is that you go and explore the other potential answers together and also to manage the timing as well so that they know how long a discussion is going to be you lasting for.

I think, as the adult, I'm also responsible for the language that we use and being really clear that we're going to try and not use emotional or inappropriate language. That we are talking about real people and it's their lives that are being affected by conflict and whatever personal views or opinions that I may have, they're not going to enter this conversation and so it's being quite clear with students about how the conversation is going to take place. What the answers might look like, but also how long we're going to talk for and when we're going to end maybe what even we're going to do after our conversation. So, some of those parameters that we set are maybe that we will listen to each other, that we'll take it in turns to speak, that we'll keep checking in that each is okay, that if we want to stop, we're free to say that we want to do that at any time and just making sure the conversation stays within the parameters of the here and now not speculating on what might happen in the future which can be overwhelming.  

Clare: So, once you've established a safe and supportive environment to have these conversations, hopefully you'll feel confident that your prep work will allow the conversation to flow without it becoming too uncontrollable or overwhelming, but it can be difficult to know where to start and something that I always find useful in my practice here at the museum is just establishing what the child's pre-existing knowledge is about the conflict that you're discussing.

So, this allows them a safe space to share what it is they already know, what it is they want to find out. It also gives you an insight into what sources they may have been exposed to or picked up on and whether those are age appropriate, reliable and also whether they have any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the conflict and it's always good to remember those and come back to them later on in your conversation and in establishing that pre-existing knowledge you're really establishing a common ground for you both to start off with on these conversations and another thing that can be really useful to do is to have a think about how you want to end the conversation. So, making sure that it doesn't end abruptly. If there's anything that you weren't able to get around to or address, you can always return to those at a later conversation and it's also good to give a time expectation to the child as well. So, for example, you've got five minutes left it's time to think of maybe one last question that you may have about this conflict and subject matter and also this is a really good opportunity to acknowledge the effort that the child has made in engaging with this conversation and equally the effort that you, as the adult, have made as well.  

Ngaire: Actually, just thinking about how I end a session with veterans and eyewitnesses leads me to think about our final top tip which is to think about how you're going to follow up the conversation you've had. You want the child to know it's been meaningful it's got purpose and where you're going to take it next. So, that might be scheduling a time for the next conversation that you're going to run on the same principles as one you've just had, it might be giving yourself some time to go and better inform yourselves before that next conversation or it might be something much more creative: writing a letter, drawing a picture or something else you know that would interest the child just to help them process what they've discussed, what they've heard and where they want to maybe take the conversation next.  

Clare: So, those are our top five key recommendations for establishing a safe and supportive environment to have these conversations with children about ongoing conflict and that includes informing yourself, setting expectations, considering timing and environment, what the child may already know about the conflict, and also any follow-up that you may wish to do after your conversation as well.  

Using Appropriate Stories

In this video, we focus on identifying the most appropriate stories about ongoing conflict to share with children.

Ngaire Bushell, Producer, Public Engagement and Learning: So, I think Clare, when setting up conversations about ongoing conflict, it's really important to think about the environment that you're holding those conversations in, and also the sources that you're going to use to be able to have that conversation. And I know when we talk about historical conflict there's a wealth of written material books and other sources about and from that conflict.  

When it's an ongoing conflict within an ongoing news cycle choosing the right sources can be quite overwhelming. This video is going to explore how Clare and I select sources that help us to have conversations about contemporary conflict. We've got three top tips to share with you. 

Clare Lawlor, Producer, Public Engagement and Learning: Well firstly I would look at selecting a source that is relatable to children. So, for example, clothing that's on display often will come up in student responses along with children's toys. We can all remember having a teddy bear growing up and it's always really interesting to see students acknowledge that the items that they find most relatable are their way into examining this really broad and complex subject matter, and that is a really, really useful way in. Is this source relatable to children? And another example of that is could you find a source that relates to your child's specific hobbies or interests, so for example it could be music, sport, family pets. And you can't guarantee that you will find a source that will match your child's specific interests, but if you can it is a really, really helpful way in, rather than going into the details around a vastly complicated geopolitical conflict and context. 

Ngaire: It's really interesting, that last point you just made, it's- sometimes we're talking about really complicated subjects, big global events, huge numbers of people involved, and if you can take something like a jumper, something like a teddy bear or an ice skate and also find a personal story through an individual, a named individual, can often really resonate. And also, sometimes the child's experience evolves with the situation so I really noticed recently that gas masks used to be something of an ‘other’ object that they couldn't relate to at all, and they almost got put on a bit of a pedestal and was seen as an object that just looked quite fun and exciting.

Now, because of the global health situation that we've experienced, young people are coming to that object in a much more thoughtful way. So, whereas they've now got experience of wearing masks the discomfort, the always thinking ‘have I got it with me’ suddenly reveals more about that object story and the implications of having that object with you than they've ever really considered before. So, it's using as you say that relatability starting from the child's starting point and their own experiences or their own particular interests, although some of the stories that we do use can often have quite challenging subject matter. 

Clare: And that's another point that I think is really important to consider when selecting your sources to have these discussions with children about ongoing conflict is how appropriate it is for the child. 

Ngaire: Some of the decisions that we make is about age appropriateness and at the museum we make those decisions uh based around the age of the students we're going to be working with. Now you are going to be the expert in the child or the children that you're holding these conversations with so what age-appropriate means is for you to decide, but it might be helpful to know some of the things that we do would never use if a source contained to help you make those choices for sources. So, we would never use a source where there was graphic content of sexual, emotional, or depictions of violence. We would never use an image where those weapons of war like guns tanks aircraft are depicted in an intriguing, enticing, way. And we would never ever use a source where the language was offensive or discriminatory. So sometimes knowing what you would not use can help you make that selection with the sources. 

Clare: Something else that I would recommend to consider when selecting a source to talk to children about ongoing conflict would be if it's easy to analyse. The process that you were talking about a little bit earlier is really important, and you can start by asking some of the core questions. So, “Who? What? Where? When?” What is the provenance of this source? What does it tell us? What does it not tell us? Do we get any assumptions from it and how helpful are those assumptions with analysing that source? And I would say if you can only answer around three of those considerations then I would recommend perhaps moving on and looking and selecting a different source, and that is something that we do every day here at the museum and it's okay if the very first source that you look at isn't the most appropriate source because there's a wealth of information out there and you will find the source that is best suited to speaking about ongoing conflict with children if you just keep searching for it. 

Ngaire: And I think that's really interesting isn't it Clare, because we almost do that every single day without realizing it. We're looking at sources, we're thinking about age appropriateness of it, we're thinking about, “how would we analyse it? What are those key questions? And then also, “is it relatable for the child or the children that we're working with?” And so, hopefully in these three videos we shared with you some of our top tips about setting up a really good environment to have those conversations about ongoing conflict in, to think about the sources you're going to use and how you're going to analyse them and the ways that you would articulate with the child what you've rejected and why you've chosen the ones that you have. So that you've got this way in to what is a really difficult and challenging conversation, but when it's about ongoing conflict quite a necessary conversation.

Finding Appropriate Stories

In this video, we discuss how to find and analyse relevant information to support your discussions.

Clare Lawlor, Producer, Public Engagement and Learning: When having conversations with children about ongoing conflict, including the conflict in Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen, it's really easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that is available and even if you're able to create a safe and supportive environment to have these conversations in what sources do you use and how do they help to inform your discussions.

Now, in this video we'll be analysing a source precisely to see how it can help us in having these conversations about ongoing conflict with children. Now, a source is a piece of information, it could be a newspaper article, it could be a personal story or an object on display and here at Imperial War Museums, we are surrounded by sources from historical conflict, but actually the same principles that we use to examine those sources can be applied to sources from ongoing conflict as well. In this video we're joined by James who is a curator here at IWM and we're going to explore how we can use sources to inform our discussions. So, James where do we start with sources?

James Bulgin, Content Leader Holocaust: Okay, so I'm going to talk you through how we would approach an object as curators at IWM and the kind of questions that we'd be asking ourselves about an object to establish its authenticity. But really the same principles pertain to any kind of object from any kind of source in any kind of context.

So, these skates for example were brought to the UK in 1939 by a boy called Herbie Koniec who came to Britain as a child refugee. He was allowed here as part of a scheme that allowed Jewish children into the country but not their parents so roughly 10,000 children there or thereabouts came over during that period but importantly not their parents. So, Herbie had been living in Czechoslovakia and when he was packing the things that he wanted to bring with him, and they weren't allowed to bring very much, these were some of the things that he bought. But he never wore them once he came to the UK and actually he held onto them for the next 60 years before giving them to IWM in 2003.

So, from our perspective we would describe the provenance of these objects as being really solid, well, these were donated to us by the owner, and we know that the same owner had owned them from his childhood in Czechoslovakia to when he came to the UK and then he held onto them for the rest of his life. So, the provenance there is really solid. He also gave us some other objects to support that to him and when he donated the objects the creators were able to ask him questions at the time around his experiences and around the objects themselves so there's a lot of information on our record about these which is really good.

Clare: So, because the donor was the original owner of these skates that means the provenance is really strong. But what is providence and why is it important?

James: So, from our perspective provenance is really, really critically important. Essentially, all provenance means actually is it's about the history of ownership of an object and all the information you'd want to have available to you to confirm that what the thing is, is what it claims to be.

Clare: So where would we look for provenance from a source in an ongoing conflict?

James: Okay, so the principles are actually exactly the same. The context may be different, but the principles are the same in the context of a contemporary conflict. The first question I would ask myself is, where am I getting this from? So, in the same way, here I would say "well my information is coming from the donor." In the context of a contemporary conflict, I would say "who's giving me the information in the first instance?"

And most of the time, for a contemporary conflict, that's likely to be either a news source, whether that's a website or a T.V. or newspaper et cetera, or that could be within social media or somebody sharing something via their phones. And so, when I look at an object or mostly an image or a photo or a film in this kind of context I would say "who's hosting it?" And if that's a reputable news source, I would have some degree of confidence in knowing that the people working for that organisation have done some checking that what the thing is, is what it claims to be.

If, however, I was seeing that on social media or somebody sent it to me on their phone, I would be inherently much more aware of because I don't have that supporting context and the supporting information and the provenance to ensure that we have confidence that it is what it claims to be.

Clare: So, going back to the skates which are a historical source I would assume that they were bought for him by his parents, but do we know that for certain?

James: I would assume that too, but actually that's one of the pieces of information that we don't have readily available to us. So actually, unfortunately Herbie passed away a few years ago so we can't ask him. It's very sad but that's the reality of the context that we're working in. But there are also other things that I would be interested to know that I don't know off the top of my head. I don't know how many other children had boots and skates like this available to them, I don't know how commonly they were used, I don't know you know it's a massive amount about the climate in Czechoslovakia at this time, this period of time. So I need, I'd need to find these things out and those things are the kind of information which I could get hold of, but I would need to do some research and verify that. But there are also some things which I can't know for example how often he used to use them before he came over here and who bought them for him.

Clare: That's really important, and it reminds me how important it is to check yourself whenever you say, "I assume", well I'm bringing my own kind of personal experience and knowledge about ice skating today in my assumptions of this source. But actually, I need to check where I'm getting those assumptions from, and I guess would it be the same if you were looking at an image or a newspaper article from an ongoing conflict.

James: Yeah exactly. I think as I kind of have this rule myself saying if I ever hear myself saying "I assume" I always check myself because it it's it it's almost always something that you're relying on information that isn't necessarily right, and I think exactly as you say there are assumptions involved in this which we need to kind of check and verify and obviously the context in which this exists now is somewhat different because you know these are now historical objects.

But as I said the same principles really pertain to both things. So, these objects are now objects which are on display within the galleries, and they help us to support a much broader narrative of the experiences of children coming to this country in the final years before the outbreak of war. And some of the important insights into their experiences which we might not think about at face value, and this is obviously something which sources can offer us it's not just the immediate information it also offers us some more nuance important information about detail and context.

Clare: And like you say, Herbie's story is so incredibly poignant, and we can gain a lot of information from his skates, but that is just one person's experience. So how can sources help us understand the wider context of conflict?

James: Yeah so, as you say, these skates were about Herbie's experiences, but they also suggest something broader about the experiences of all of the children coming to the UK during this period. All of the, obviously, all of their experiences would have been marked by specificities, but at the same time there were general things too. And one of those big general things was the culture shock that these kids experienced, because they were coming from a way of living an entire existence and dislocated into a completely different one. And so, what they got when they came to the UK wasn't what they had left, and that's a really important human dimension of the experience that that we need to concentrate on. Obviously, the experience of parents is really important too.

And I think that relates in exactly the same way to any source now. The source from contemporary conflict tells us about the specificity of what's going on within the image or the film or the objects, but it also suggests broader things about the context from which it's occurred, and it's important that we think of sources in that kind of dynamic way.

Clare: And, obviously, we're talking about a historical source in these skates, but how does that translate when looking at a source from an ongoing conflict where we might not necessarily know all the information about it?

James: Yeah so, I think my first rule is always to look closer. To look for the details, look for what's going on in the background, to look for the things that you don't necessarily see at first glance and then to look at the contextual information that you do have that you can be confident about and, as you say, to constantly be guarding against the problem of assuming. To not make up ideas about things that you think must be the case, and to be really really really mindful of your own biases as well because when something is so active and so emotive and there's so much kind of fear and trepidation that's coming with it it's really easy to map your own feelings onto something, and it's really important to step back and try and retain a degree of objectivity and say "I need to just respond to what's there, not what I imagine is there or what I'm imposing on what's there, what I'm forcing into my interpretation."

So, I look at the image, this film, the object, and look at the context, look at the information I have, and really importantly to really study it, to not to take things at face value to be really mindful of where it's come from how it's come about and what you can actually see versus what we think we can see.

Clare: This has been so fascinating, thank you. And to recap about the kind of important things you need to consider when looking at a source from contemporary conflict, you can start off with the really cool questions you know "Who? What? Where? When?" But also, it's really important to check the provenance of that source, where has it come from, and also to check your own assumptions and consider where those assumptions are coming from. And how a source from a contemporary conflict can give us an insight into one person's one individual story, but how that can then tell us the wider context of what is going on in that conflict. And I guess really importantly, is to not be afraid to not know everything. Not be afraid to continue to ask questions. It's okay for your opinions and ideas to change based on the new information that you gain. So, thank you so much James, it's been really interesting.

Related Content

© IWM MSF identity card issued to Dr Natalie Roberts in 2015, when she was the Emergency Coordinator for MSF’s response in Yemen.
© IWM MSF identity card issued to Dr Natalie Roberts in 2015, when she was the Emergency Coordinator for MSF’s response in Yemen.
Contemporary conflict

Aid Workers: Why we do it

Being an aid worker can mean facing hard choices and dangerous environments. Discover what keeps three aid workers going in difficult times. 

Refugee Hosts thumbnail
Contemporary conflict

Refugee Hosts

More than five million refugees from the Syria Conflict have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Refugee Hosts project explores local responses to displacement in the Middle East, considering the experiences of both refugees from Syria and the communities which host them.

Teacher CPD: Let's Talk About Empire and Conflict
Teacher CPD

Let's Talk About: Empire and Conflict

Free CPD films to support teaching the experiences and legacy of the British Empire and conflict for secondary pupils, led by IWM experts, teachers and equality advocates.