How to Explain the Israel-Hamas War to Your Children
While it’s tempting to avoid talking about the war with your kids, experts share it’s generally better to discuss it.
On October 7, the militant group Hamas committed one of the deadliest surprise attacks in the generations-long and complex conflict in the Middle East. Hamas killed Israeli civilians and took many others hostage. Israel declared war on Hamas one day later.
Since then, the number of Israelis that have died has topped 1,200. That declaration of war brought Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, and the number of Palestinians who have died is also more than a thousand. Both are expected to rise.
Cable channels that broadcast 24/7 news and social media make it possible for people to see violence, death, and destruction in real-time, and it is nearly impossible to shield children from the news altogether.
Whereas previous generations may have overheard a teacher talking about it, a teenager may have seen images of fighting on their social media feed—regardless of how hard parents have tried to get them to stop that nightly scroll. Little ones may come downstairs late at night to find their parents watching talking heads discuss the war on one side of the screen, with violence playing out on the other.
Children may have questions, and adults may feel they have few answers. It’s tempting to turn off the TV or tell a teen they’re forbidden from watching videos on the subject. Mental health professionals empathize but say trying to avoid the subject may do more harm than good.
“This is a difficult topic,” says Zishan Khan, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “It’s something even adults have difficulty talking about. When it comes to children, parents want to protect their innocence and protect them from anything disturbing, but that can backfire.”
In the age of social media, children, particularly tweens and teens, have probably heard about the conflict, or maybe have already seen disturbing images, and may be curious. If a parent refuses to talk about it, Dr. Khan worries young people will turn to other sources that may provide misinformation or exacerbate fear.
Erica Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist, director of Connected Minds NYC, and a mother, shares these concerns.
“As a parent myself, I want to know what my kids are thinking about things so I can get curious about their thinking…and give them facts,” Dr. Miller says. “They may have feelings, anxieties, and fears. We won’t know unless we talk about it. I wouldn’t want a kid to feel like they are unsafe and not have a place to come home and talk about it.”
But how can parents discuss the latest development in a long conflict that they may not even fully understand? We turned to the experts to help find age-appropriate words.
First Steps for Parents, Regardless of Age
Whether your child is 3 or 13, experts stress it’s important to take two steps before proceeding with a conversation with a child. First, regulate your own emotions. Second, ask your child what they know.
“You have to figure out how you feel—not politically but how you physically feel in your body,” says Aliza Pressman, PhD, a developmental psychologist, co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. “If you have been watching the news, seeing scary images, and feeling very anxious, you need to regulate yourself because, in conversations with…any kids, they need to borrow your nervous system.”
Dr. Pressman is talking about co-regulating, which helps children regulate emotions, particularly in stressful situations. From there, you want to meet kids where they are, which means asking what they know.
“They may know a ton about it but have misinformation,” Dr. Pressman says. “They might have heard sprinklings but didn’t know they were allowed to ask about it. With all things, not just terrifying things that happen in the world, you always want to meet children where they are.”
Dr. Miller agrees. Scripts put on Instagram tiles—and the ones below in this story—may be useful. But there’s no one-size-fits-all. Follow your kids’ lead. “No matter the age, the template is using your kid as a springboard to know what to say and not to say,” Dr. Miller says.
By Beth Ann Mayer | Parents.com