As parents, it's our job to do everything we can to make our children feel safe and secure. So it's only natural to default to avoiding topics that may frighten, concern, or cause panic in our children. But what should you do when the topic impacts you directly because of your religion or beliefs or when the topic feels unavoidable due to news and social media coverage?
Ever since October 7th, many families (including my own) have been torn on how to answer this question. So, I compiled expert advice from trusted sources on how to best navigate these difficult conversations with their children in this age-by-age guide.
Tip 1: TAKE INITIATIVE
Don't wait for your child to ask you about it. Not all children will start a conversation or ask questions about what's going on and may instead choose to rely on information from their peers or social media. In order to ensure that your children are receiving accurate information, it's important to take the lead.
Waheeda Saif, a program coordinator at Riverside Trauma Center in Massachusetts suggests using open-ended questions to start a conversation: "'Have you heard what's been going on in the world?' 'Have you heard anything about what's going on in Israel and Palestine?' And just see what they say, and take it from there," she said during a conversation with NPR.
Children of all ages deserve a conversation — even those without loved ones who live in Israel or Gaza.
Tip 2: LEAD WITH EMPATHY, NOT POLITICS
Regardless of what you believe, we can all agree that everyone has a right to life. While this seems like a known fact, it's important to start here. According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Claude Bruderlein, leading with empathy in these discussions will help dissociate ourselves from categories like race, nationality, and religion, which can become divisive. “The first, more sensitive step is really to take a stand that everybody has a right to life and dignity, regardless of their nationality, regardless of their religion, regardless of their gender and age,” Bruderlein told The Boston Globe.
Tip 3: IT'S OKAY TO NOT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS
It can feel impossible to answer all of the questions that may pop up during your chat but it's important to remember that you don't have to have all of the answers and that you are not expected to turn into a historian or political scientist overnight. Often children just want to better understand why and how people can be so cruel to one another and as difficult as it can be to explain, it's okay to redirect them towards believing in the possibility of peace and coexistence. Allow them to lead by asking them how they can improve the immediate world around them by being kind to others.
Tip 4: CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF
Protecting your mental health at this time is vital. Family clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, recommends that you "...check in with how you are doing, as well, to ensure that you are not flooding your own nervous system...be mindful of how you are feeling so that you can be more present for you children."
How to Explain the Israel-Hamas War Age-By-Age *Source, Parents.com
- Many experts agree that discussing the war with your preschooler is not necessary UNLESS they ask you about it or see it on the news. You want to avoid dismissing them because of their age while keeping the topic age-appropriate by using words and situations that they can relate to.
- Leading the conversation with statements about people hurting each other and expressing that it is never okay to hurt someone else is an easy way to start.
- Keeping things simple with this age group is best as well. You can begin by showing them a map of where the conflict is taking place, discussing why people may be sad or upset and being direct about what it means to be at war.
- Once social media has entered the chat, the discussion needs to be dialed up a bit. It's important to help your middle schooler realize how to spot fake news and how to fact-check information that they may find on the internet.
- For this age group, it's important to let them lead the conversation. You can do this by asking questions to see what they already know and to help determine how they may already feel about it. Respect their opinion while introducing them to and educating them on the history of the conflict. If you don't know it, this is a great opportunity to learn together.
- Helping your high schooler learn to discern fact from fiction is key. Help them identify and follow reputable, non-biased sources that you know and trust to try to help beat the algorithm of content that is designed to spark an emotional reaction.
- Help them understand the importance of being mindful of their mental health. Scrolling social media and seeing photos and videos of death and violence can be traumatic. According to reports, Israeli and Jewish schools in the U.S. have even urged parents to delete social media apps from their children's phones to shield them from seeing any purported hostage videos from Hamas. Deleting social media from their phone may seem extreme so it's important to remind them to take breaks from social media when they feel overwhelmed with any content they may see and to also report the content on social media to keep it out of their feed.
A major part of keeping our children as safe as possible is to make sure that they are aware of what is going on around them. I hope these tips help prepare you to do just that. Let us know how your discussions go on the forum.