By Amalia Phillips
Director, Israel and Overseas Education at the Macks Center for Jewish Education
As we read and watch the news coming out of Israel and Gaza, some of us who are parents are wondering how to talk to our children about the situation and what we should tell them. The first thing to be aware of is that while our youngest children may not be allowed to watch the news at home, they may have heard something while out of our care.
Even very young children listen to and understand adult conversations. They may also listen to their older siblings – or their peers = and they may absorb information from social media. Many of us remember our surprise at hearing our children’s first inappropriate words picked up at recess, or their proud boasting that they know about the “birds and the bees.” We might be surprised by what our children have heard about Israel and the current conflict.
It is important to find out what our children already know. As parents, we should ask questions, listen carefully to the thoughts and feelings our children express and then validate those feelings as normal and proper. Furthermore, we should observe our children for non-verbal cues such as loss of appetite, sleeplessness, extended periods of anxiety and other physical symptoms. If a child has experienced personal trauma or loss in the past, s/he may respond more severely to current events and will need extra support and reassurance.
Discussing violent acts appropriately does not increase children’s fear as much as the burden of having to keep their fears to themselves. So while we, as parents, want to shield our children from scary or upsetting news, having a conversation is always better than having our kids keep their worries to themselves. Fear does not go away just because it is ignored.
It is normal for children to see their parents sad, anxious or angry about the events in Israel. We should share these feelings with our children so they are not left wondering whether it is their fault that their parents are upset/sad/worried. A simple explanation such as “I’m sad because some people were hurt in Israel today” may be all that is needed. However, burdening children with a litany of concerns and/or seeking your child’s support for your anxieties should be avoided. Parents should use simple and concrete language that is easily understood by their children, and should keep in mind that children may not fully understand the situation, even after it has been explained.
Limit and control media exposure. At this age, children may not fully comprehend what they see. Scenes of destruction may seem like a cartoon or computer game to some but may be terrifying to others. If children are terrified, their fears usually manifest themselves in contexts that are familiar to them. At this age, for example, they may be worried about not being picked up from school or camp on time. Reassure them repeatedly. You may find that you need to repeat information because preschoolers have the tendency to ask the same questions over and over.
Help preschoolers find ways to express their feelings. Preschoolers may not have the language and vocabulary with which to express their feelings. Allow them to draw a picture or play with dolls instead, and use their drawings or play as a springboard for discussion.
Keep it simple. Kids may listen for a few minutes and then want to go and play. This is normal. They may have questions later, or they may not want to discuss current events at all.
Create a quiet place to have a conversation. Use words that are appropriate and accurate.
Share specific information that helps the child feel safe. The need to feel safe is important at this age, so you may want to discuss new technologies that better protect people in planes and buildings (e.g. special reinforced rooms and shelters). If your child is interested in electronics, you may want to find a simple article on the Iron Dome defense system. It is important to reassure children if they have fears about their parents flying off on a business trip, or the family’s upcoming visit to Grandma’s house for the holidays.
Suggest practical ways your child can access support and information. If your child has questions you cannot answer, acknowledge that things are complicated and confusing and that you do not have all the answers. Suggest some ways you can discover them together. (e.g.. talking to a spiritual leader; finding out information about safety procedures when hearing a siren; or learning about measures Israel is taking to protect its citizens).
Look for ways your children can be helpful. If they want to do something practical, suggest that they write cards or make something for children in Ashkelon who are sitting in shelters, gather supplies to send to Israeli soldiers or pray for the safety of Israel and its people. For additional suggestions, check our the Center of Jewish Education website.
Middle and High School
Turn off the television and/or the computer. With 24/7 news coverage, the same news is regurgitated over and over. Your children may not realize it is the same information and may find the repetition of information and images disturbing.
Share a range of opinions. Middle and high school children are more focused on testing boundaries, exploring their newly found independence and asserting the concept of fairness than younger children. Some even have sophisticated knowledge about politics. Help them appreciate the complexity of the issues involved. For instance, show them how to access Israeli media online; have a conversation about bias and how to detect it; reinforce their critical thinking skills by suggesting they read reputable sources with whom they are likely to agree and also those with whom they are likely to disagree. If your children are active on social media, you may want to help them post appropriate comments and monitor their activities.
In addition to thinking through the way we communicate with our children, we can consider some particularly Jewish responses. For example, for generations Jews have turned to the giving of tzedakah and the reciting of prayer as ways to connect with each other and find strength in ourselves. Check the CJE resource page for sources. When you are a role model of compassion and introspection, your child will watch you and learn these skills.
Whatever you feel about the current situation in Israel, remember that it is important for our children to be engaged with Israel, to dream of a peaceful world and, most of all, to know that they can bring their questions and concerns to you.