“My child has not been fazed by the news coming out of Eretz Yisroel. The rest of us are tense, some of us are worrying and just about everyone is feeling sad about the suffering and the atrocities. He is 12 years old and goes about his day with his usual pranks, attempts to be funny and is not participating in any family efforts to discuss what is going on. Is he missing a conscience or a heart? Should we worry about him?”
This call and similar ones which are focused on the range of reactions to expect in children have been quite frequent on our crisis line. Caring, sensitive parents observe their children, and while some worry about the child who has strong reactions, others worry about those with no reaction.
It is normal to react to troubling news. It is not particularly normal to have no reaction. This is why some parents register concern about the less-reactive child. However, a parent must take into account two realities:
- Most people’s reactions reflect the meaning they ascribe to an event. When something feels personal, relevant, is nearby or affecting one’s immediate life, they are likely to react. Those types of events register, and have meaning to a person.
- Reactions are also consistent with one’s age, maturity and understanding of the nature of an event. This is why each person responds subjectively.
War, and all of its painful ramifications, has meaning to those directly involved, or to those who have had previous experience with prior wars throughout their personal history. Adults who have dealt with warfare or with terrorism generally do react with a “normal” range of reactions, which might include disbelief, shock, dread or sadness. When news of war comes to a child, it is often gleaned only through indirect sources such as overhearing discussions, or listening to the media. It may have less meaning or less personalization to the child. Also, when the war seems far off and not impinging on a child’s personal routine, children are likely to have fewer and less intense reactions to what they are hearing.
Similarly, adults think and feel about the war through the lens of their maturity. They consider the repercussions of war—what it portends and its ominous implications—because this is how adults process bad news. Children think more concretely, ponder less, have a narrower range of mental associations, and are not prone to contemplate in the abstract nor think philosophically about such news.
These are likely reasons that some children do not react. Either the war seems far away and barely relevant to them, or their young minds do not grasp the gravity of war in the ways that an adult mind might. When a child does not display the reactions that a parent expects, it is not necessarily an indication that the child is callous, uncaring or insensitive.
There are also children who are reacting deeper within, deeper than you might detect, yet who are uncertain about what to do with their feelings. At times, a child may flee from uncomfortable emotions by retreating into regressive behavior, or with withdrawn, stoic demeanor, or by bottling their reactions internally rather than talk about them. A sensitive parent will be patient, will not lecture or scold a child who does not respond in the ways in which we expect him to, and with time, will educate the youngster gently about some of the events that have triggered our concern and worry. With patient prompting, some children can be educated about the meaning of the war to our people, to Eretz Yisroel and possibly to the child himself. Tactfully, mindful of the child’s capacity and maturity, you can foster increased sensitivity in your child over time. Meanwhile, parents are a family’s role model as to what our values are, what our priorities are, and should model effective healthy tools for managing fear, worry, sadness and frustration.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS.