As parents and caregivers, we want to protect our children. So when terrible things happen around the world, like the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on October 7 and the ensuing war, our first instinct is to shield them. But kids are perceptive. They’re watching us, sensing our energy, glimpsing what we see on our phones, catching a news clip, or talking to friends at school. In short, they know when something is off, and that unknown can be scary too.
So while we want to protect our children from horrible events happening in the world, experts agree it’s actually better to talk about it. But how do we begin? Parenting expert Dr. Becky Kennedy shared what so many are feeling on her Instagram, “There are no ‘right’’ words for events in the world that are so wrong.” But parents still want to show up and be there for their children during this ongoing and ever-changing situation. The best way for parents and caregivers to talk to children about the Israel-Hamas war will vary depending on their age and how directly impacted they are by the attacks and the conflict. Here, experts Dr. Dity Brunn and Dr. Itamar Barnea weigh in on talking to children about what’s happening.
- Dr. Dity Brunn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at Pepperdine University. Dr. Brunn is also a Board Member at American Friends of NATAL—the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center. Dr. Brunn is an expert on the importance of early mental health interventions.
- Dr. Itamar Barnea is the Chief Psychologist at NATAL and recipient of AFNATAL’s 2023 Humanitarian Award.
Assure Them They Are Safe
According to UNICEF, “Children always look to their parents for a sense of safety and security, even more so in times of crisis.” Assure little ones they are safe and you’re there with them.
Being present so they can communicate with you is so important, said Drs. Brunn and Barnea, who suggested giving them an opportunity to reassure and support others. “You can also call people you love on the phone together and ask how they are doing. Tell your children phrases like, ‘We are together and taking care of each other.’”
Ask Them What They’ve Heard
Licensed child and family psychologist Dr. Nina Kaiser shared in a previous article on The Everymom that parents should speak with their kids about world events when their child is showing an awareness that something is happening. “With older kids, it’s important to start from a place of curiosity,” she said in the article, “Ask your kids what they know already, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling, then use this information as a basis to guide the conversation.”
Provide Age-Appropriate Information
Drs. Brunn and Barnea recommend parents and caregivers provide essential, reliable and focused information. It is important to help children understand what is happening and it is not recommended to hide information, but on the other hand, there is no need to go into too much detail.
Dr. Kaiser previously shared that this also means monitoring your own thoughts and reactions as an adult.
Reduce Exposure to Media
Drs. Barnea and Brunn recommend reducing children’s (and adults’) exposure to media, especially images and content that are inappropriate for their age, despite them being rapidly disseminated on many platforms. They recommend leaving only one device in another room so you can be updated as needed.
The news and social media are full of images and videos that are unsettling and can linger in our thoughts for an extended period. Despite the natural temptation to watch, it is important to be responsible with such media and not disseminate it.
Normalize Their Feelings
Drs. Barnea and Brunn suggest explaining that this situation arouses feelings of tension, apprehension, and anxiety in everyone. “Give legitimacy to everything they share with you—explain that physical and emotional reactions (fear, crying, tremors, confusion) are a normal reaction to this situation. The body and brain react naturally.”
We all want to raise good humans who respect and celebrate each other’s differences. UNICEF recommends, “When talking to your children, avoid labels like ‘bad people’ or ‘evil’ and instead use it as an opportunity to encourage compassion, such as for the families forced to flee their homes.” And even though it’s across the world from the U.S., we know the crisis is fueling discrimination at home. UNICEF also recommends parents “Remind your children that everyone deserves to be safe at school and in society. Bullying and discrimination are always wrong and we should each do our part to spread kindness and support each other.”
Take Care of Yourself
As Dr. Becky shared in her post, “Taking care of yourself is the first step in showing up as a sturdy leader for your child.” Drs. Barnea and Brunn provided additional recommendations on how to take care of yourself right now:
Distract Yourselves with Activities
As much as possible, engage in playful activities, board games, word games, numbers, and memory games. You can use the time to organize things like photos on your mobile or rewatch favorite TV shows.
Relax and Ground Yourselves
Inhale deeply, let your mind wander to happy places, and embrace one another. Engaging in physical activities such as stretching, yoga, jumping, strength training, or dancing can be significantly beneficial. Offering a helping hand and sharing a smile—even a forced one—are two powerful gestures that provide strength during challenging times
This emergency will eventually end, assured Drs. Barnea and Brunn. Right now it is important to keep ourselves and those close to us feeling as safe and calm as possible. Think, what can calm you down and help you deal with the situation a little better now? Reflect on what can soothe you and make the current situation more manageable.
For Those Who Want to Help
Whole communities are hurting and the situation is changing day-by-day. Police and security ramped up in U.S. cities today, October 13, with many Jewish families wondering whether to keep their children home from school amidst Hamas threats.
Check on friends and loved ones directly affected by the attacks and the unfolding crisis. No one should suffer alone.
Where to Help Families Affected
If you want to help those in need in Israel and Palestine, consider donating to accredited charities such as:
- American Friends of Magen David Adom (Israel’s version of the American Red Cross)
- Palestine Children’s Relief Fund
- Doctors Without Borders
- Save the Children