The news coverage and graphic imagery coming out of Israel and Gaza currently can be tough for anyone to process, but especially children. If you’re not sure how to broach such a complicated topic with your kids (or even if you should), here’s what therapists and family psychologists suggest.
First check in with yourself
Aja Chavez, executive director of adolescent services at Mission Prep, a mental health treatment center and a former educator, advises that before you approach your child, you check in with yourself. “As a mother of two, when I see the images, I get flooded with an almost paralyzing fear and sadness thinking about something similar happening to my family,” she says. “Recognizing what you are feeling and thinking will help you relate and connect to your kid’s experience. It will also let you process and come to the conversation in a more regulated and open place to create a safe container for your kids to share.”
Then find out what they know
Even if you haven’t been watching the news with your kids, they may have heard about what is happening from friends or at school, they could have overheard you talking on the phone or they may have noticed rallies and vigils in their neighborhood. And if it hasn’t come up yet, it may very well come up in the future. So the first thing you should ask them is, “what do you know about what’s happening? How do you feel about that?”
When it comes to bringing up difficult topics, the Child Mind Institute suggests using open ended questions in order to allow your child to lead the conversation rather than vice versa.
The National Association of School Psychologists also advises grown-ups to be patient and make room for kids to talk about how they’re feeling: “Some children prefer writing, playing music or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.” In other words, you don’t necessarily need to have a heart-to-heart with your kid about what’s happening—you can find a way to connect with your child that makes sense for them.
“Just listen and be curious about whatever comes up, without sugarcoating or smoothing the discomfort away,” says Chavez. “This is really hard to do as a parent—we want to protect our kids from fear and take away the uncomfortable sensations. Find a way to hold space while they share, asking, ‘is there anything else?’”
Validate their feelings
Your child may be feeling very confused or even scared about what is going on. Let them know that their feelings are valid, and that we don’t always understand why people do what they do.
Per Michael Roeske, licensed clinical psychologist and Senior Director of the Newport Healthcare Center for Research and Innovation, the most important thing parents can do when talking about difficult subjects is to let kids and teens know they are not alone in how they’re feeling. “You can say it’s OK to feel scared and, depending on the needs of your child in that moment, even that you’re scared too.” Remember, kids are highly intuitive—they know when something is off. “In this sense, don’t tell them something much different than how you are doing.”
Let them know that they are safe
Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled, so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe, the experts at Child Mind Institute tell us.
You could say something like, “I know you may have seen some scary images on TV, but know that we are safe in our house.” Or you could ask them to give examples of how they know they are safe, says Chavez.
One mom we spoke with said she was caught off-guard when her eight year-old asked if this would be the start of World War III, or if this meant there would be violence against Jewish people like him in the United States. “I assured him that while we care deeply about people all over the world, this was happening far away from where we live. Still I wish I had been better prepared with an answer.”
In addition to verbalizing their safety, Chavez says it’s helpful to “provide some techniques to your kids for ways they can regulate their minds and bodies when any big thoughts and feelings show up. Practice some breathing techniques, writing to release thoughts onto paper, moving their bodies, or other options that you come up with together.”
Keep things age-appropriate
Be honest with your children, but tailor your discussion to their age and emotional maturity. Younger children need simpler explanations, while older children may be able to handle more complex discussions.
W. Lee Warren, MD, is a neurosurgeon and author of Hope is the First Dose, a book about the human capacity to heal and find hope following grief and trauma. As someone who has lived and worked in war zones, here’s how he would talk about the Israel-Hamas war with his grandchildren. “With younger kids, I would avoid the geopolitical and religious aspects of this conversation and just focus on the human side—people are scared and hurting, people are fighting, and we need to think of them or pray for them, etc. For older children we can try to explain the centuries-old conflict and how each side believes that land is theirs, and thus it is a complex and difficult situation that has led to this rather than people just being evil or mean to each other.”
For older kids, you can also promote critical thinking by presenting different viewpoints and discussing the situation’s complexity, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and the director of Comprehend the Mind. “Teach them how to evaluate news sources for credibility and explore the real-world consequences of the conflict, including its impact on civilians and regional stability. ”
And remember that no matter the age, be careful of using emotionally charged language. “Refrain from inflammatory or polarizing language, which can heighten emotions and hinder understanding,” cautions Dr. Hafeez.
Stay informed but monitor their exposure
The latest reports and imagery from the war are incredibly distressing. As such, you may want to consider limiting your child’s exposure to the news and social media, and choosing age-appropriate news sources. “Be mindful of the news and media your child is exposed to, as excessive exposure to graphic or distressing images can be harmful,” stresses Dr. Hafeez.
If your child wants to do something to help, you can look into ways to do that could work for your family. There are many charities and humanitarian organizations that are helping victims of the war that you can read more about.
“Discuss ways people and organizations are working to bring peace and humanitarian aid to the affected areas,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Encourage your child to explore ways they can contribute to positive change, such as supporting charities or raising awareness.”
Keep the conversation going
Don’t assume that this is going to be a one-and-done conversation. The end goal should be making sure that your child feels comfortable coming back to you to talk or ask more questions. They may need time to process and reflect on what you talked about, before broaching the subject again.
“Remember that discussing wars in other countries can be emotionally charged, so approach the conversation with patience, empathy and sensitivity to your child’s emotions and needs,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Adapt your approach as your child grows and gains a deeper understanding of the world.”
Originally published on PureWow.com.