On October 7, 2023 / 23 Tishrei 5784, on Shabbat Sh'mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched an unprecedented attack on Israel from Gaza. The surprise attack came one day after Israel marked the 50th anniversary of the surprise invasion on Yom Kippur and represents the single deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
Since October 7, the war has already resulted in the tragic loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, with the death toll continuing to rise every day.
During this time of tragedy and mourning, it can be difficult to speak with children about what is happening. Depending on their age, they may be hearing or seeing frightening things on the news, at home, at school, or online. As caregivers, it is important to both shield our children from trauma and provide them with the skills to cope with fear and anxiety.
Here are seven tips that may help you navigate discussing these acts of terrorism and violence with your children:
- Learn what you can. As Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE states in her article "After Terror: 5 Jewish Ways to Help Kids Deal," "One of the greatest mitzvot of Judaism is learning." Learning is an integral part of our tradition and always has been. Read up-to-date articles from diverse news sources so that you can stay informed. As you're doing this, you can identify what your child is ready to hear and what information may or may not be developmentally appropriate.
- Understand that different children have different needs. In her article, "Helping Children Process Acts of Terrorism," Rabbi Edith Held Mencher identifies some guidelines that may be helpful for different age groups. Young children may simply need to have the tragedy acknowledged; school-aged children may be able to understand more, but mostly need to feel safe; teens will likely understand most of what is happening (and may even have more details than you), but also might have the most difficulty asking for help in processing their emotions around what has happened.
- Make sure that your child feels comfortable coming to you for answers and accurate information. Sivan Zakai, Ph.D. wrote an article for Kveller with age-appropriate language that can easily be tailored to you and your child's needs. These suggestions all stress the importance of making yourself available to answer any questions in the upcoming days and monitoring what your child sees. While watching 24/7 news footage can be traumatizing for kids, talking about it openly and honestly can ensure they feel informed and helps them cope.
- Ask questions, then listen to the answers. Let your children guide the conversation and follow their lead. On their "Responding to Crisis" page, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland gives some examples of ways to open the discussion by either asking about what they've heard regarding the news about Israel, explaining why it's important to talk about what is happening, acknowledging that they've likely heard you worrying about Israel, and including them in the conversation, or discussing ways to help those who are in Israel.
- Reassure your child. When asked, "How do I Talk to My Kids About the Current Situation in Israel?" Rabbi Victor S. Appel responded that children may be worried about friends or family in Israel. As caregivers, we can help alleviate their concerns by listening to their fears, reassuring them that we're doing everything we can to keep them safe, and explaining that part of tikkun olam is working toward a world in which all children are safe.
- Take care of yourself. In her piece, "Parenting Thoughts: Helping Kids Cope With Tragedy," Margie Bogdanow reminds caregivers that it is important for us to process things for ourselves. That way, we will be able to focus on helping our children process their own feelings when we talk with them. Especially in times of crisis, it can be tempting to forgo caring for ourselves in favor of helping our kids. However, Bogdanow reminds us that one of the best things we can do for our kids is to make sure we model taking care of our own mental health.
- Tap into additional resources for caregivers. The Jewish Education Project has a recording of their October 10 webinar, "How to Talk to Children About Israel Today," on their website. The Shomer Collective's Resource Library for Children has materials to help you discuss the current violence in Israel and other difficult topics with your child.
We pray for an end to the war, healing, and the safe return of all those taken captive by terrorists. While it can be difficult to have these conversations with our children, it is also important to make sure that they are informed, help them engage thoughtfully with Israel, and introduce them to or reiterate the concept of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba'zeh - "All of Israel and the Jewish people are responsible, one for the other" (Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a).
Learn more about how you can support Israel during this time of great tragedy and mourning with additional resources and actions you can take.