Caring for Teenagers in the Midst of War in Ukraine

It’s hard to know where to begin, talking with teenagers about the suffering in Ukraine. But talk we must

Choosing our moments carefully, we can begin by inviting them to share what they have seen and read and heard from their friends. You’ll find out quickly what concerns them the most: the flight of the refugees, the injustice of the invasion, the plight of those trapped in Ukraine, or the Russian soldiers who claim they did not know what they were being led to do. Perhaps your teenagers are anxious for a particular person or family they have seen on the news or social media – certainly many of us have been astounded by the courage of the Zelensky family. Teenagers have a strong sense of justice and injustice which this particular war is certain to provoke. They may feel fear, worry, anxiety, sadness, and anger all at the same time.

We need to validate their painful emotions, as well as their sense of overwhelm if they cannot muster the will to look closely at the news reports. Intense emotion is perfectly normal; this is a time to share the story of Job and the psalms of lament so that our children can see how God welcomes even our anguished interrogations when we are in pain. Alongside your teenagers, take those emotions to God in prayer, out loud and honestly. 

It is also normal for a burdened teenager to feel like he or she “can’t deal” with news of the war. This too is an opportunity for conversation. After a full day of school, anticipating a long night of conjugating Spanish verbs, your youth student or teenager may not want to talk about the latest atrocities filling up their newsfeed, but they might be open to talking about those hurts that are closer to home. 

We also need to talk about where sin—and therefore war—comes from in order to help teenagers make sense of the story they are in. The big story of the Bible tells us that God created a good and beautiful world, one in which all of the relationships, between human beings, creation, and God, were good (Gen. 1-2). Sin entered the world when human beings rejected God’s good reign and asserted their own rule (Gen. 3). There has been conflict of all kinds ever since (Ps. 2). This was not God’s intention for the world he created, but neither is he surprised by it. He has a good plan to make all things good and beautiful again, when Jesus returns to right all the wrongs that sin has brought to the world. Apart from an understanding of the biblical narrative, we would often lose heart–but those who know and worship King Jesus have a hope that is not of this world.  

Inundated with political division and competing truth claims in the news, teenagers can easily feel skeptical of adults’ allegiances. Modeling a balanced news diet can help make us a safe place for teenagers to bring their questions, concerns, and even skepticism. If you don’t already, consider subscribing to daily newsletters with differing biases, such as The New York Times and The Dispatch. Follow fact-checkers like the popular civics teacher @SharonSaysSo on Instagram or other platforms for well-researched, bipartisan news updates. You might even make it a habit to check these sources together from time to time in order to talk about what you’re learning.

Perhaps the best thing we can model to our teenagers in the midst of our helplessness is a posture of dependent prayer.  While we may find ourselves unable to put our desire for justice into words, we can pray together for practical needs–for example:

that families will have enough gas to make it across the border

for families to be able to reunite following the conflict 

that orphanages, NICUs, hospitals, and other facilities would be protected from aggression

for countries and organizations taking in refugees to have the needed food and supplies

We can also lean into the biblical pursuit of lament, crying out to God in anguish as we pray Scriptures like Psalm 10, 73, and 91, Lam. 3, Matt. 6:9-13. Consider watching this video with your teenagers, of Ukrainian Christians praying Psalm 31. And we can pray the imprecatory psalms together–those that call for God to act in judgment against evil. Meanwhile, we must also pray for the church to be bold and effective in gospel witness in the midst of terror.

In the age of social media, it’s so easy to defer to “likes and shares”–but we should also challenge teenagers (and ourselves) to take real action. I know one preteen who is holding a bake sale, the proceeds of which will go to a charitable aid organization feeding Ukrainian refugees in border countries. Families or youth groups could work together to raise funds as a tangible show of support. Charity Navigator and other watchdog sites investigate the legitimacy of various nonprofit ministries so that givers can exercise wise stewardship. The process of prayerfully researching charitable organizations can be a great learning opportunity with teenagers. 

As we honestly face the news, we must also point to the presence of God in the midst of war. Kate Bowler–author, professor, and Stage 4 cancer survivor–writes that as she thought she was dying, “God’s love was everywhere, sticking to everything. Love was in my husband’s hand on my back, steadying me, a lightness under my feet, and all over [my son’s] velvety ears… Despair was never far away, but somehow the seams of the universe had come undone, and all the splendid, ragged edges were showing. And they brought me closer than I’ve ever been to the truth of this experiment–living–and how the horror and the beauty of it feels almost blinding.”

Even in the midst of our despair over the atrocities in Ukraine, it is good and right for us to point teenagers to the light and presence of Jesus–the strollers and bags of diapers left at Polish train stations for fleeing Ukrainian mothers and children, the men and women who have risked everything to stay and fight, crowds of Germans offering free room and board to refugees, Ukrainian ballet dancers turned soldiers for freedom, and on and on. In these examples we see the light of God’s kingdom breaking through.

Finally, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and overwhelming sadness, remind teenagers of the gospel: That our Good King Jesus suffered and died to absorb the ultimate curse of this broken world and all its evil, that he rose again to conquer death forever, and that he will finally come again to make all things right. The ancient words of the Heidelberg Catechism give us a wonderful resource as we rehearse these truths: 

  1. What is your only comfort in life and in death? 
  2. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.


Recommended Reading

How to Talk to Kids About the War in Ukraine by Justin Whitmel Earley (TGC)

A Prayer for Ukraine by Katie Polski

Discussing the War In Ukraine with Students by Jason Engle (Youth Pastor Theologian)

Go Ahead. Pray for Putin’s Demise. by Tish Harrison Warren

Every Moment Holy Liturgies by Douglas McKelvey; two liturgies relevant to the war are available for download: see Liturgy for Widespread Suffering and Liturgy for a National Tragedy (you will have to give your email address).

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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