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How to Talk to Your Children About War, the News and More

Amanda Jordan, Ph.D., Cook Children’s psychologist, shares her knowledge and experience on how to discuss difficult, unsettling topics such as the news of Israel and Gaza.

By Reilly Ternan

Over the past week, families have seen and heard the images of war overseas. The tragedy in Israel and Gaza hits home for many communities and families around the world, sparking fear, uncertainty, and worry. How can parents and caregivers answer their children's questions and help comfort them?

Cook Children’s psychologist, Amanda Jordan, Ph.D., is sharing some advice and guidance for parents and their families. stock-photo-family-relationships-and-trust-concept-father-talking-to-his-sad-little-son-at-home-in-evening-1398231200.jpg

What advice do you have for parents who are struggling to explain the news of Israel and Gaza to their children? How should they approach this topic?

First and foremost, I just want to validate how complex of a topic this is especially with the level of violence and imagery being released.

I think one of the best ways to approach this topic is to meet our children where they are -- developmentally, cognitively, and psychologically. For example, I would approach this topic differently with a 5-year-old vs. a 15-year-old. Use open-ended questions to gain an understanding of what your child knows and thinks. 

Ask “What have you heard?” or “What have you seen?” For teens, you might ask “What do you think about what is happening in Israel? How do you feel?”

Also, if your child brings up the topic, it’s OK to take a minute (or a few) before answering to gather your thoughts. Be honest with them by saying “I really appreciate that you asked me and I want to talk about it more with you, but I would like to think about how to approach it before we talk.” Make sure the environment is conducive to this as well (e.g. not having these difficult conversations in public, loud places or with children of varying ages who may need to receive the information differently). 

How can parents encourage their children that they are safe?

Parents have to take the time to process their own emotions first before they can be able to listen to their child and provide reassurance. Parents may also have to limit their social media use and news intake in order to maintain their own well-being. For younger children, you may choose to show them a world map or globe so they are able to visualize where this is happening and provide them with a sense of safety.

What if children are afraid of doing their normal activities, such as going to school, attending church, or seeing friends? stock - talking to teen 4

One of the best things you can do is maintain your normal routine as this provides consistent structure and support. Reassure them and support their feelings, but also continue your schedule as normal.

How can parents protect their children from seeing information on social media, TV, etc.?

As parents, we have to take the lead and provide guidance and boundaries for our kids. I read a wonderful quote from Glennon Doyle that says “We don’t have to have answers for our children; we just have to be brave enough to trek into the woods and ask tough questions with them.” Screen time kids ipad (3)

For me, this shines a light on the fact that, as parents, we are responsible for taking the reins. This may be through deleting social media apps for a certain time period, limiting access to social media, decreasing the time spent on social media, etc.  It also means that we are responsible for asking the tough questions and engaging in difficult conversations, even if this is uncomfortable for us.

What is the best way to explain the concept of war to a child who might not know yet? How can I explain it in a way that will not scare them? What age should I be explaining this to them?

It depends on the child’s developmental level but we want to present it in a way that is factual and straightforward. Provide brief facts such as “there is a terrorist organization that is attacking a country of people” and then let your child take the lead on any questions or thoughts. Another example may include “war is when two groups of people are fighting” and it can become more complex from there if the child needs additional information (e.g. using an example of a war they have learned about in the classroom).

For teens, it may also be important to define the groups involved. This assists with not developing generalizations in our thinking. Also, remind your children that you are here to answer questions as they may arise. talking to your kids

What resources are available to help me talk to my child about this?

If your child has access to a therapist or school counselor, this is a great resource. There are also many reputable organizations that provide information online such as the Child Mind Institute.

How can my family support others during this time?

Focus on the helpers! Look for articles, videos, pictures, and/or organizations that are helping. Talk with your child about ways they may like to help. For example, donating to an organization, raising money, sending care boxes, etc. Continue to remind your children that they can always come to you with their questions if they feel confused about anything.

Learn more about ways you can show support:

  • Find local charities that are assisting. This website helps find reputable charities:
  • Reach out the your closest Synagogue or Jewish Association.
  • Find reputable news sources and articles.

Parents, remember to take care of yourself

Model healthy coping skills as children take their cues from you. Children need to see that it’s OK to express emotion. 

Effective ways to cope include speaking with other parents at school, forming/joining a parent support group, leaning on family members for support, eating nutritious meals, exercising, meditating, praying and speaking with your child’s school counselor for advice on resources or books on supporting yourself and your family.

National Parent Helpline run by Parents Anonymous to get emotional support from a trained advocate: 1-855-427-2736.

Related stories: Talking to Your Kids About Conflict in Israel and the Middle East