Apr 08

Focus on Your Family’s Mental Health: Battling Anxiety While War Rages

It has escaped no one’s attention that there is a major military conflict going on in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine. Turn on the evening news, listen to the radio, or scroll through your social media news feed, and you’ll see evidence of gross atrocities, senseless violence, and doomsayers suggesting that this is the start of a world war. In the midst of all of this, how do you guard against fear and anxiety and protect your own mental health, as well as that of your children? Intermountain, a national leader in children’s mental health, recently shared their insights and practical suggestions for caregivers.

screencap from ABC article online, “Mental health effects of Ukraine war zone on children.” Emilio Morenatti/AP (https://abcnews.go.com/International/mental-health-effects-ukraine-war-zone-children/story?id=83203801)

First, ascertain where your children are getting their information about the crisis in Ukraine. Is this a subject of discussion in school? Is it something they are seeing in their own social media accounts or conversation they’re having with friends? Crystal Amundson, Intermountain’s Clinical Director in Billings, recounts an interaction with a child who came to her upset because she heard that all the children and families in Ukraine “were being bombed by Putin.” This child was comforted to know that despite the conflict, most children were still safe and able to go to school and be with their families. Limiting the time spent focusing on the conflict and ensuring the information your children are receiving is factual, and not editorial opinion, should be a priority.

ML Rutherford, Intermountain Residential Director of Education in Helena, looks for media that deals with current events and world issues in appropriate terms for children. The resource used at Intermountain School is CNN10. The “10” refers to the number of minutes that the video presentation lasts, and that is more than enough time to cover the basic information without it being overwhelming. This resource does a good job of just presenting the facts and informing children. You can find this resource at cnn.com/cnn10. There are a number of similar podcasts and news aggregate sources that do the same thing for an adult audience if you find that you spend too much time or energy watching the news.

In terms of dealing with the children’s anxiety around the subjects of war or conflict, ML utilizes a foundational principle at intermountain which has been distilled into the mantra “right here, right now.” This tried-and-true strategy helps both you, as the adult, and the child focus on the source of the anxiety and not just accept it uncritically. “Right here, right now” is a reminder to ask yourself, “In this moment, what is it that I can control?” Another helpful question that can reframe our anxiety is, “What does this have to do with me, right here and right now?” And most importantly, “What can I do with these thoughts and feelings I am having in this moment?”

The focus in answering these questions should not be on fixing the problem. Indeed, one of the reasons our anxiety can be so powerful is that often problems are outside our power to “fix.” Instead, make it your goal to find something concrete that you can do together with your child that deals with their immediate distress. Taking three deep breaths, enacting a physical ritual such as using your hands to gather up your thoughts and put them in an imaginary box, or perhaps praying (if this is part of your family’s religious observance) are examples of brief but concrete things that you can do together.

For generalized anxiety due to unrest in our world, Crystal Amundson suggests that using the “Mr. Rogers principle” is helpful. Mr. Rogers is known for suggesting that in any crisis we can find “helpers.” “Helpers” are not exclusively emergency response personnel or those portrayed in the media as heroes but can be extended to those who are doing anything positive in the midst of troubled circumstances, even with seemingly small gestures of goodwill. A young child was relieved to hear Crystal share that area churches were sending medical supplies, sleeping bags, and more to Poland to help the refugees pouring out of Ukraine. The child reflected, “If you’re in a war, sleeping close to God would feel good.” They then talked about ways people could be helpers here in Montana, mostly focused on spreading kindness and non-violence.

Craig Struble, one of Intermountain’s co-occurring therapists, had some insight for older children and for adults. He suggested, much in the same way that Intermountain’s school limits the sources of information to those that are fact-based and not opinion-focused or commentary, we can help one another be critical thinkers when it comes to the information that we are digesting. “Teenagers, who have some ability to think abstractly, can be asked to consider how the sources of various information and opinion might be invested in creating division,” Craig observed. While such division and argumentation might generate social media clicks or greater viewership, it is not helpful in dealing with our anxiety in difficult times! If we are aware of this dynamic, we can be more discerning consumers of information and better equipped to avoid needless confrontation.

All this, of course, should be done in a non-judgmental way that helps to bring people together and encourage further dialogue. It is important to consider that if someone has fed into their own anxiety by digesting materials that confirm their fears and trepidations, they are unlikely to be convinced by those who dismiss their concerns immediately or respond well to someone who seeks to invalidate their sources of information. By exercising compassionate and empathetic listening, we can validate an individual’s feelings without endorsing their point of view or the sources and individuals from whom they are getting their information. Sometimes, the practice of reflective listening is enough to diffuse the anxiety and tension in a given moment, opening the door for healthier dialogue or interactions in the future.

I hope that these insights prove helpful to you in the days ahead. Intermountain is committed to the partnerships that we have in the community and across the state, working together toward stronger relationships built on hope and healing. You can learn more about the work at intermountain.org or by calling 406-442-7920.


The Reverend Chris Haughee is a licensed minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church and is the Church Relations liaison for Intermountain. An adoptive father to two, Chris is an advocate for greater inclusion of foster and adoptive families in the life and ministry of local congregations. Chris is the author of several devotional books including his latest, Hope for Healing, which is available at Amazon.com or by directly contacting Intermountain at 406-457-4804.