The Israel-Hamas conflict: How to talk to children about the harrowing news

The Independent sought advice from trauma experts and educators

Kaleigh Werner
New York
Tuesday 17 October 2023 09:10 BST
Fighting intensifying between Israel, Hamas

On Saturday 7 October, the militant group Hamas — labelled as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the EU — invaded Israel from Gaza, launching a horrific series of attacks on civilians along with thousands of rockets fired at population centres.

The assault is the deadliest in the Jewish nation’s history, with thousands of soldiers and civilians having been killed, wounded or abducted. Following the incursions, Israel declared war on Hamas, prompting a military operation in Gaza. Israel has also cut the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip off from food, electricity, medicine and other supplies until they release the dozens of hostages captured during the assault.

In addition, according to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), “Approximately 6,000 bombs have been dropped on the Gaza Strip with a total weight of 4,000 tonnes.” An estimated 1,799 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The tragedy and devastation is harrowing, especially surrounding reports of babies and other children being killed, leading to a storm of emotions, among them how to communicate about the tragedy with children.

On top of this, a child’s propensity to notice the slightest signs of confusion, uneasiness and grief are often underestimated, said Dr Robin Gurwitch, a professor in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science in North Carolina, noting that a small change in routine or signs of distraction can be picked up by young children.

“Right now [is] creating a whole series of emotions from anger, to sadness, to horror, to anxiety, depression, fear — a myriad of emotions that are happening,” Dr Gurwitch told The Independent. “And for adults, it may lead to things like anxiety, depression, a sense of helplessness, problems with sleeping.”

“The really young children, the twos and threes, and maybe even the fours don’t truly understand what’s happening,” said the senior advisor to the Terrorism and Disaster Program of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “And kids can pick up on anxiety, kids can pick up on distress. So if they recognise that something’s wrong, they may have more meltdowns and temper tantrums. ... Because they’re too little to know what’s going on is that they pick up on our cues, even infants pick up on those cues.”

And while children aged two through five may not be exposed to any online news like those in elementary school could be at the moment, their attention to mood shifts could not only lead to their own behavioural changes but questions.

After speaking with Dr Gurwitch, as well as Robin Werner, director for early childhood at Solomon Schechter Day School in Greater Hartford, and Rabbi Jonathan Berger, the head of school, The Independent has compiled a set of guidelines for how to talk to young children about what’s going on between Israel and Hamas.

Find out what they know/understand

First, it’s important to start any conversation of this nature by inquiring about what a child already knows or has heard. For a productive conversation to take place, and to know how much needs to be explained or divulged, you need to figure out what they think they know. This also helps to prevent you from providing unnecessary information.

“One thing that can happen is a parent will hear a question and start unloading everything, but the kid didn’t know or want to hear all of that, they actually had a smaller question,” Rabbi Berger said. “So, you first want to make sure you understand your child, like where they’re coming from and what they want to know about.”

Though you may be doing everything in your power to shield your kids from horrific realities — and, according to Rabbi Berger, it’s easier to do so for younger infants — it’s very possible older children have been exposed in some way, even if they don’t fully understand it.

“It is a wish rather than a reality that our children don’t know what’s happening. Because they have heard adults in conversations, they’ve been in a room and even if the adults don’t think they’re watching the TV, they’re hearing it,” Dr Gurwitch explained.

To start, you can say: “There was a horrible attack in Israel, tell me what you know about it.”

Answer questions truthfully

Once you have a firm understanding on what they’ve been exposed to, it’s important to respond to their questions in both a candid and careful manner.

“If kids see us as people who should be trusted adults, not talking about something makes it even scarier for them,” Berger noted. “If they see us afraid to talk about something, which is how it’s going to come across, that’s ultimately a lot worse for them.”

Meanwhile, say the experts, keep in mind what information is age-appropriate and which details aren’t necessary for them to know. Overall, it’s best to keep your answer simple, limiting yourself to one or two sentences.

As Dr Gurwitch pointed out: “It is okay not to share the gruesome details. You know, if children say I know that there were children that got killed, yes, there were. But you don’t have to say they beheaded them.”

“So we answer it in a way they understand how we talk to a five-year-old is certainly going to be different than how we talked to the 11-year-old,” she went on to say. “So at a level they can understand.”

Ask how they feel and validate them

After you’ve given them a chance to ask questions, and you’ve answered their inquiries honestly and simply, allow them to open up about how they’re feeling. Whether they’re exhibiting feelings of distress or noticing adults in their life acting differently, children should be given the space to speak on the situation is affecting them.

Like grown-ups, kids too can feel the weight of a myriad of emotions, and they then need to be validated too.

“We validate rather than try to talk them out of it,” Dr Gurwitch said.

Emphasise safety and be positive

Wrapping up the conversation on a positive note is essential, the experts said. Infants, toddlers and elementary school children have innocent natures that should be protected. And although you as an individual may find it difficult to assume an optimistic mindset, a child needs to know is that they’re safe and “we care about the innocent people affected in Israel and Gaza”.

“They’re so innocent. They don’t know what’s going on. And they just come to school with smiles on their faces and see what’s in front of them,” Werner said. “You want to make sure that they know that we’re safe.”

According to the early childhood director and Jewish educator, emphasising the level of concern and attention designated to the safety of humanity is crucial.

“A simple answer is: ‘We care about Israel. Everyone’s feeling this way because we care.’ But as simple as you can, as honest as you can, as loving as you can, as empathetic as you can be to a child who, you know who’s innocent and who looks at the world with rose-coloured glasses.”

Aside from ensuring curious children are well-informed to the level they should be, Dr Gurwitch noted the necessity of having other trusted adults for parents and teachers to talk to. This not only benefits the adult’s mental state but aids a child’s perception of the situation.

“What they need to see is that we can pull ourselves together and be fine,” she said.

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