Horrors in Israel: When you're lost for words
In the midst of unspeakable horrors in the Middle East, many of us find ourselves staring into the eyes of our innocent children and feeling lost. We do not presume that any one script will work, but we hope this is a place to start.
COOPER TEAM • OCT 9TH, 2023
In the midst of unspeakable horrors in the Middle East, many of us find ourselves staring into the eyes of our innocent children and feeling lost. Should we bring it up? When? How? What should we say? How can we explain? What do they notice? Where do we put our own anxiety? As the concerns pile up, we can sometimes find ourselves paralyzed from taking action.
From our team of worried, distraught, and saddened parents, to you, our incredible community, we offer this guide on what to say and how. Please know that these suggestions should be filtered through the experience of your family, of your faith, of your values, and your family dynamics. We do not presume that any one script will work, or that one conversation will be enough, but we hope this is a place to start.
For all of us, regardless of your child’s age:
REMEMBER TO BREATHE. From birth, our children are sensitive to our nervous system, and therefore our stress. In times of crisis, as our own regulatory system is challenged, our children notice changes in our emotional states, our shorter fuse, our shakier sense of security, and our endless distraction. Try to be extra patient with yourself and others.
TURN THE TV OFF AROUND YOUR KIDS. From the youngest babies through adulthood, TV news as background noise can be harmful to our nervous systems. The constant news-grabbing headlines, music, graphics and heightened emotions can keep our nervous system in “go-mode”, can be misinterpreted, and can spread fear.
TAKE A BREAK WHEN YOU NEED IT. Walking away from news coverage and finding time to engage in other activities - even while feeling distraught - is an important way you show your children that you can take care of yourself. No matter what our children see and understand about the situation, they need to know that we are capable of caring for ourselves and for them without hesitation or impairment. Self-care makes that possible, and is essential modeling on how to best refill your tank and soothe your fragile nerves.
EXPLAIN WHAT YOUR CHILDREN SEE. Your children notice much more than you think. If you’re whispering to your spouse, checking your phone, feeling more anxious or distracted, they notice. And when children notice but don’t understand, they make up their own explanations in secret. Letting them know what you are experiencing is one way to foster connection and strengthen trust. For the younger children, narrate the experience by saying, “I am thinking about so many things today, I am really distracted and all over the place.” Even without details, you’re providing an explanation to your child about what they see. For slightly older toddlers, you may say, “Mommy/Daddy is sad today because people far away got hurt and are fighting. It’s OK for me to be sad, and I know how to take care of myself.” For the older children you can be more explicit (after explaining the conflict), and say something like, “I am distracted by thinking about what is happening in Israel, so I’m sorry if I am acting a little funny today. I will be OK, and I am working to manage all of my feelings.”
STICK TO ROUTINES. In the face of crisis, we all need to stick to the familiar. For our children and ourselves, routines help us to feel safe, secure and in control. When some aspects of our world feel predictable, it can help to provide us with the security we need to handle uncertainty elsewhere. As much as possible, try and keep your family routines going throughout this chaotic time.
LEAN ON YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM. You may have heard from many of your community organizations, houses of worship, or schools in the last few days. If you or your family need additional support in these trying days, reach out. Professional support is also available for both adults and children at any time. At Cooper, we are dedicated to supporting your family, too, and will make ourselves available for any questions or concerns you may have.
Having conversations with our kids:
If your child is of school age, you can assume that they are hearing or will hear about this war. Being the first source of information is powerful, and can help to set them up with facts and awareness that can alleviate shock and anxiety. Being forthcoming with your children also creates an atmosphere of trust, of openness, and of connection.
Remember that you do not need your child to walk away with any particular feelings, questions or reactions. Your only goal is to help them be informed and know that they can come to you with any questions or concerns.
After making sure you are regulated and prepared to talk about this issue, here are a few ways to engage in conversation.
Start simple. “There is a country far away called Israel. Some people there were attacked this weekend and got very hurt. Now Israel is at war with a group called Hamas.”
Find out what they know. “I’m wondering if you’ve heard anything about this war and what you may know.”
Be honest. “In any war, people will be hurt and killed. War is a terrible thing and everyone is hoping for peace.”
Pause. Make room for any reactions and for information to sink in. If they have follow up questions, you can continue.
Give context. “Even though Israel is very far away, we care about people being hurt wherever they are.” You can also add information here if you have religious or family connections to Israel or Palestinian Territories.
Reassure them that they are safe. “You are safe, and we are always working to keep our family safe.”
Help them understand duration. “Israel and Hamas have been fighting for many centuries, but this war is new and worse. A lot of people feel scared right now, but they are hoping for peace.”
Explain strong reactions, including your own. “You may notice that a lot of people have strong feelings about this war. That is because so many of us have big feelings about this part of the world. I feel that….”
Make it active. We know that turning anxiety into action can help all of us. Ask your child, “Is there something we can do that would make us feel like we are helping? Any ideas?” If they can’t generate any, consider checking on neighbors who may be affected, making donations of goods or services to organizations helping in the affected areas, or learning more and supporting international humanitarian organizations. Even a local petition of Kids for Peace, or a lemonade stand can make little ones feel involved.
Steer them away from unreliable sources of information. For our oldest children, it’s important to talk to them about reliable sources of information. You may want to recommend that they stay off social media, avoid upsetting or gratuitous video content, and steer clear of hate speech. Make sure to talk to them about media sources you feel good about, and suggest ways for them to consume content that breeds knowledge, not fear.
Stay open. At every age, we want our children to know that we can handle anything that is on their minds. We have to be safe and easy to talk to, AND we want to make sure that our kids know they can come to us anytime. Be open to repeating this conversation several times, to having it reappear when you least expect it (bedtime), and to exploring new and unchartered territory as a family.
As with any conversation with your kids, make sure you are LISTENING in a way that conveys you want to hear and learn, not in a way that suggests you want to share. Make space for your child’s reactions, thoughts and concerns, and don’t rush to fix them. Allow them to sit and process the information they have, and follow their lead. For some of them that may go into diplomacy, religion, terrorism, or an entirely different direction. Learn together and acknowledge what you do not know. Read and consume material together if you can and keep things age appropriate.