Ellen Geller Kamaras
Since October 7th, we have all faced the challenge of trying to process a great deal of trauma. The horrific attacks in Israel and the virulent anti-Semitism at home and abroad have left us reeling. And the hostage situation causes us to struggle with feelings of outrage and our anxiety over the uncertainty of when and if the hostages will be released.
If we adults are having so much difficulty, we recognize that our children are also having trouble. Here are some tools you can use with your children when talking with them about the war and the anti-Israel climate.
How to talk to children about death varies by age. Generally, children do not comprehend what death is until age three. Although even infants and toddlers can sense when a parent is grieving. So, it is essential for parents to keep to routines as much as possible to boost their young children’s sense of security.
At the same time, parents need to recognize their own grief and take time to mourn.
Although older children, between five and eight, grasp that death is permanent, kids between two and four believe that death is reversible and they can “wish” a loved one to come back. Children may also question if they themselves or their parents will die. Parents need to reassure them. Rather than using euphemisms like “passed away,” which are unclear, use real words (gently) like “died.” Offer kids books about death (there are good ones out there, many from a Jewish perspective) and help them to express their feelings and fears.
Where to Start?
First, think about what you want to say. Be direct instead of vague, while also being tuned in to gauge how much your kids can handle. No easy feat!
Even your preschoolers may have heard from classmates about the tragic events in Israel or they may have overheard news reports. Never assume they have not been exposed.
So, start by asking your child what they have heard. It is preferable to hear about very difficult topics such as death, trauma, or anti-Semitism, from Mom or Dad rather than from another child. Next, ask your children if they have any questions and how they feel about what has happened. Older kids may ask more questions than younger ones.
Most importantly, keep the dialogue direct and uncomplicated.
Use age-appropriate but real language. It is okay if you do not have all the answers or you cannot predict what will happen. You can say, “I don’t know the answer, but we could research it,” or “I’m not sure there is a clear answer, but we could come up with some possibilities.” Actively listen to determine what your child is really asking. Do they want more information, or do they need reassurance that you will keep them safe?
During the pandemic, adults and children had to cope with uncertainty. When we help our children navigate the present moment, we can help them prepare for a lifetime of unknowns. Give them space to express how uncertainty feels and model calmness. Roosevelt University Professor of Psychology Steve Myers says, “You can certainly talk about possible or likely outcomes. You can even talk about what you hope will happen. But trying to protect your child from uncertainty altogether is not helpful to them.”
Share basic information and avoid graphic or unnecessary details about tragic situations. Keep young kids away from graphic and violent images and sounds that pop up on TV and the internet. Be aware of what is out there and talk to your children about what they may hear or see.
It is key for a parent to communicate: “It’s okay if these things bother you. We are here to support each other.”
Follow up to see if your kids have more questions and notice any difficulties they may be experiencing. Are they having nightmares, are they extra clingy or emotional?
Self-Care for Parents
You know the mantra put your own oxygen mask on first. Parents, that means taking care of yourselves. If you run out of oxygen, you cannot help anyone else with their oxygen mask.
Parents need a good mindset to have calm and productive conversations with their children. Take time to check in with yourselves, process the latest news reports with each other, and ask for help if needed. Take a break from your news feeds and get some fresh air and exercise.
Seek support and connection. Utilize available resources in your children’s schools, your shuls, and in the community.
Let us continue to pray for the safe return of the hostages and for the protection of the IDF and all of Am Yisrael.