Talking to Your Kids about War in Israel and Gaza
By Melanie Wells
Right after 9/11, parents who were glued to their televisions suddenly realized their children were watching too. They knew kids should not view horrors on repeat, especially from what was practically their own backyard, yet many could not easily turn off the news. Sometimes an adult, rooted to the spot in disbelief, is traumatized too, forgetting that the child nearby needs protection and reassurance when disturbing news comes in.
Today we see the next generation of horror unfolding, in Israel and Gaza. It is not local this time, but it might as well be. With the explosion of social media, we have scores of horrifying videos literally riding in our pockets and at our fingertips. Again, we are called on to monitor what our children are seeing, and ensure they do not see too much. And even if they’ve only seen a little or only heard stories, they need to know we are there to talk, protect, keep them safe and help them make sense of what seems a senseless onslaught of brutality.
In a recent PBS interview, Yasmeen Alamiri spoke on this subject with Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a professor in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health. Dr. Gurwitch is a recognized expert in understanding and supporting children in the aftermath of trauma and disasters, focusing much of her clinical work and research on increasing resilience in children who have experienced trauma including terrorism. In a calm, sympathetic and reassuring tone she spoke about how to approach conversations with children about war.
Ms. Alamiri posed a question on every parent’s mind: Do we talk to our children about this at all, and if so when? how?
Dr. Gurwitch’s response was unequivocal: “Absolutely positively yes,” she said, adding that it’s up to the parent to bring it up as children may not – they may be worried they’ll upset you. She noted that if we talk about it we have a better chance of helping our children learn to cope. She advised starting very simply, with a statement like, “There’s a war going on in Israel and Gaza – tell me what you know.” Taking a cue from your child this way will help you not to jump in with “TMI” or information overload.
The American Psychological Association, which has released a tip sheet and article “Resilience in a Time of War: Tips for Parents and Teachers of Elementary School Children”
(https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/kids-war), echoes this advice. The APA’s #1 tip is simply, “Talk to your child.” And, like Dr. Gurwitch, it advises you to ask first before jumping in with a prepared monologue. Ask your children “what they know and what they think.” Then, listen to their answers and take it from there.
If they express fear, it is important to reassure them that THEY ARE SAFE. Making a clear unambiguous statement like, “I will always take care of you” is especially effective. At the same time, begin helping them build resilience by also noting that while it is okay to feel fearful, we “must go on with life anyway.”
Dr. Gurwitch, too, stresses the importance of reassuring children that they’re safe. When a younger child asks about something frightening, she says, what he’s usually really asking is, “Am I safe?” and “Are you safe?”
Talk to your child…if they express fear, it is important to reassure them that THEY ARE SAFE. -American Psychological Association
It’s fine to say that “many people have gotten hurt and some have even died so we feel sad about that,” says Dr. Gurwitch. But, she cautions, DO NOT offer any gruesome detail. That is not important for the conversation. As kids get older, they become capable of understanding more nuance and that the world is neither black or white, but has areas of gray. Their peer group has influence, too. With teens, try saying, “Tell me what your friends are saying” because often this will actually reveal what your teen is thinking, too.
When asked for the top three things a parent should keep in mind in these conversations, Dr. Gurwitch offered these:
- Be sure YOU are “in a good place” to have this talk, having your own emotions in check so you can hold the conversation in a way that doesn’t scare your child or make her more anxious.
- Make sure you answer your child’s questions honestly, openly, and at a level that is appropriate for the age and developmental level of your child.
- Recognize this will not be the only or last conversation you’ll have on the topic. You’ll return to it again and again as new questions arise, or as your child needs more reassurance. Know that you’ll need to circle back.
Another question: “What about social media, where parents may have little control? How do we deal with “potentially traumatic things kids may come across as they scroll through social media feeds?”
Dr. Gurwitch stressed the importance of monitoring. “Check in regularly,” she advised. Ask your kids what they’re seeing. Look at it yourself and know exactly what is coming in. For younger kids: if there are parental controls, put them on.
She added that a relentless media feed is harmful to adults as well: “We know there is a great deal on social media right now that is not appropriate for anyone, ANYONE to view – not even good for adults.” She urged parents to take a break from it, for their own sakes. She advised all family members to turn it off at least an hour before going to bed. Sleep can be disrupted by recent exposure to horror, sadness, and unfolding tragedy. “It’s going to interfere with our sleep,” she warned, if we don’t turn these feeds off well ahead of bedtime.
Make your home a safe space emotionally for your child. This means finding other activities than scrolling through feeds or watching war news. -American Psychological Association
The APA tip sheet advises: “Make your home a safe space emotionally” for your child. This means finding other activities than scrolling through feeds or watching war news. Things like playing games, reading, talking or just cuddling can make home feel like a safe emotional space. Conversely, don’t be afraid to turn off the things that make it feel less safe. Don’t hesitate to turn off the TV or radio when war coverage comes on. “While you cannot and do not need to try to hide what’s going on, you needn’t expose them to constant war news either. Put away newspapers or other printed material with extensive photo coverage or frightening images. Moderate their internet usage to be sure they are not exposed to … sensationalized accounts.”
Dr. Gurwitch was also asked about divisiveness around the world: “We know anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise in this country and that kids are experiencing it in schools and on the playground. How do we help them cope with being stereotyped, or bullied?”
Dr. Gurwitch replied, “It’s important for us as adults to ask children to come to [us] if someone is making them uncomfortable” or to help them know what other adults they can come to. Also, she advised, discuss what their responsibilities are if they see something – not necessarily to intervene, but to go to a trusted adult and report it.
Be on the watch for changes in your child. Parents and caregivers know their kids, she said so if you see them having trouble sleeping, exhibiting excessive irritability and anxiety, or struggling in school, these are signs that it’s time to talk. Heed the signs, and open the conversation. If they bring it up first, sit right down and thank them for bringing it up – don’t say, we’ll discuss it later. Don’t be surprised if younger kids ask the same questions over and over. They don’t expect different answers, they are simply trying to process hard things.
The APA gives the same message, that you know your child and should watch for behavioral changes. Tip #4 says: “BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR STRESS and KNOW IT MAY BE MORE INTENSE DURING TIMES OF WAR.” If your child is stressed and performs inconsistently in school, “be understanding and remind him that all you expect is that he does his best.”
Similarly, if signs of fear and anxiety emerge, such as “clinginess, irritability, sleeplessness” they may signal that your child is feeling the “pressure of what is going on in the world.” Encourage them to talk about it, or draw a picture if they cannot put feelings into words. If necessary, seek professional help.
A proactive tip is simply to ask your child to help around the house. This activity can provide reassurance and a sense of control. Tip #9 suggests enlisting kids in home chores on a daily basis – helping set or clear the table or make the bed each day. If children know they can “contribute to the entire family’s well-being” and know they have “a role to play,” they feel “more in control and confident.”
The 10th tip is to ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. “Neither you nor your child may have been through a war before, but you should tell your child that wars end.” You can point out times your child may have conquered fears – of the dark, or of trying a new thing for the first time. Tell them that if they were strong then, they can be now too. “When you talk about bad times, make sure you talk about the good times in the future as well.”
According to the APA, the best news is that, “just as your children learn reading and writing, they can learn the skills of resilience—the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.”
Resilience can be taught. Like any skill, though, learning it takes time and patience. It is individual too, so each child will master it at his own pace. Help your children get there by reassuring them again and again, pointing out ways they can perform small acts of bravery, and modeling bravery yourself, so they can see it. If you’re nervous about something, perhaps admit it to your child and say, “I know I can do it if I try.” Then let them see you trying.
Resilience can be taught. Like any skill, though, learning it takes time and patience… it is a lifelong skill, a gift you can help the to own. -American Psychological Association
If you help your children build resilience over time, the strength they develop will help them cope with the fear, stress and trauma of war, or of any challenge yet to come. It is a lifelong skill, a gift you can help them to own. Start now. Communicate, hug, reassure, protect – and don’t forget to model your own ability to face the world with resilience.