April 13, 2024
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Discussing the War in Israel With Children

Parents like to preserve their child’s innocence for as long as possible. That’s as it should be. At one point in time that was possible and achievable. Today it is almost impossible. Children are exposed to all sorts of information, events, philosophies, behaviors, images, and graphic portrayals well before they can understand what they are seeing and hearing. Homes without television have a slight advantage, but our children see and hear all sorts of things online via Facebook, smartphone apps, smart watches, on the school bus and overhearing unfiltered adult conversations.

The current war with Hamas is omnipresent. We talk about it constantly, we say Tehillim in shul and at school, and it is page one in all newspaper headlines and the lead story on every news channel. Middle school and high school students have some rudimentary understanding of Middle East politics, Zionism and recent Israeli history. They also have some knowledge of war and civilian casualties. In addition, teachers (hopefully) spend time discussing what is happening and place it in some sort of framework. It’s not just history, but there is also a hashkafa component.

Primary school-age children are very perceptive. They hear and see everything—but they do not always have the tools to understand that which they are seeing and hearing. Some may be frightened by the images they see. Some may pick up on the hatred and racism that they hear. Some may become depressed and sad about the casualties. Most do not know how to react and they may just parrot what they see and hear from their elders.

Young children can discover the news in many ways, so it’s important to check in on what they’re seeing and hearing. It’s an opportunity to reassure them and potentially correct any inaccurate information they might have come across whether online, on television, at school or from friends.

Reactions will vary with each child. Sometimes it may be appropriate to initiate a conversation if a child seems unusually withdrawn, anxious or angry. Sometimes parents need to be alert to clues about a child’s feelings and/or reaction to what everyone is discussing. If a child asks a question it must be answered in an age appropriate manner and not ignored. Obviously, if a question is being asked, the child has a concern. Validate their feelings. Children always look to their parents for a sense of safety and security—even more so in times of crisis. Be careful not to over explain the situation or go into too much detail as this can make children unnecessarily anxious. Younger children may be satisfied just by understanding that sometimes countries fight.

The current war in Israel is both complicated and simple. Accordingly, there are two ways to go. Editorials and op ed pieces advocate both positions. It’s a complicated calculus for all involved and adults have strong opinions, especially those with family and friends in Israel. Kids take their emotional cues from adults, so try not to overshare any fears with your child. Be calm and be aware of your body language, such as facial expressions. Don’t minimize or dismiss their concerns. If a child asks a question that might seem extreme to you, such as “Are they all going to die?”, reassure them that is not going to happen, but also try to find out what they have heard and why they are worried about that happening. If you can understand the source of the anxiety, you are more likely to be able to reassure them.

Acknowledge their feelings and tell them that whatever they are feeling is natural. Give them your full attention and remind them that they can talk to you whenever they like. Use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.

Israel’s war with Hamas brings with it prejudice and discrimination on both sides. When talking to children, parents should avoid labels like “bad people” or “evil” and instead use it as an opportunity to encourage compassion and all the multiple acts of kindness we have witnessed from all over the world.

Try to focus on the positive regardless of your personal feelings. It’s important for children to know that people are helping each other with acts of courage and kindness. Share these positive stories; there are so many of them. Maybe your child would like to participate in taking positive action. Perhaps they could draw a poster or write a poem for peace, or maybe participate in a local fundraiser or sign a petition. The sense of doing something, no matter how small, can often bring great comfort.

Try to assess their level of anxiety by watching their body language, considering whether they’re using their usual tone of voice, and watching their breathing. Remind them that you care and that you’re there to listen whenever they’re feeling worried.

As news of the conflict continues, you should continue to check in with your child to see how they’re doing. How are they feeling? Do they have any new questions or things they would like to talk about with you? If your child seems worried or anxious about what’s happening, keep an eye out for any changes in how they behave or feel, such as stomachaches, headaches, nightmares or difficulties sleeping. Children have different reactions to adverse events and some signs of distress might not be so obvious. Younger children may become clingier than usual.

Be ready to talk to your child if they ever bring up the subject. If it’s just before bedtime, finish up with something positive such as reading a favorite story to help them to sleep well.


Dr. Wallace Greene, a veteran educator, is the incoming principal of Yeshiva Keren HaTorah of Passaic-Clifton, a new mesivta high school for boys.

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