While it’s tempting to avoid talking about the war with your kids, its generally better to discuss it. In this Parents article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, provides tips for parents to talk with their children at each age group.
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.
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, 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
One more important note
Dr. Pressman advises parents to be sure to distinguish between Palestinians and Hamas. Parents can do this by ensuring they are using the word “Hamas” rather than “Palestinians” when naming the group that Israel is at war with.
How to explain the Israel-Hamas War age-by-age
This statement may contradict all of the above, but experts agree that discussing the war with your 3-year-old is unnecessary.
“In general, preschoolers should not be exposed to any of the images of war,” says Ashley Kipness, PsyD, associate clinical director. “Developmentally, it may be difficult for them to understand.”
However, a child may sneak down from their bedroom and see a parent watching the news, or regular programming may get interrupted by a news break. They may overhear adults talking about it on a playdate. Things happen, and preschoolers are naturally curious. Parents can still be prepared with a response.
“If they come to you asking questions, that’s your opportunity to talk about it instead of saying, ‘You’re too young,’” Dr. Khan says. “That can lead them to feel like, ‘Is this dangerous? Is this scary?’”
“[Explain] that a war is when people with two different beliefs—or thoughts—are fighting,” Dr. Kipness says. “They should be told the war is far away and that they are safe.”
Dr. Khan suggests, “Explain things like, ‘Sometimes people do things that hurt people.” He adds that parents should emphasize that hurting people is never an okay way to express emotions.
Simple is best with this age group, too.
Dr. Pressman suggests saying, “You may have heard about something going on very far away in an area called the Middle East, specifically in Israel and Gaza.”
“You can show them on a map where it is,” Dr. Pressman says. “[You can tell them], ‘It’s very far away, so it’s not something that will impact you here, but you might hear about it.’”
From there, Dr. Pressman says parents can give a short, simple overview of the situation. She suggests something like: “There was a terrorist attack on Israeli children and innocent civilians this weekend. This has launched a war between Israel and Hamas. Though these two sides have been fighting for many years, now it is a war, and as with any war, people have and will be hurt and killed. That’s why you’re seeing so many grown-ups who are so sad. You are safe, we are safe, but we care about the experience of people even when they are far away.”
Emphasize you’re still available to them. Dr. Miller says parents might say, “I want you to know that I might be really sad about it, but we can still talk about it. I want to answer questions you may have.”
Middle schoolers are likely beginning to go on social media, with varying degrees of parental control. This reality changes the conversation.
“What really shifts for me is the amount of details with my child about what is happening and what they might be seeing,” Dr. Miller says. “I’m imagining my middle schooler is seeing something.”
Dr. Miller suggests asking questions like:
- Can I see what you have seen?
- Have you discussed this in classes?
- Are your friends talking about it?
Let your child ask questions, too.
“Children should be encouraged to ask questions and, if parents do not know the answers, they can set aside time to find the information together,” Dr. Kipness says.
One question they may have: How did we get here? Dr. Khan says that tweens may be open or interested in learning more about the conflict’s history.
“At that time, it’s probably appropriate and OK and smart to start talking about the history of the region,” Dr. Khan says. “That’s a mistake people make. They don’t understand that this is something that has been going on for centuries, not just the past 50 years. It’s religious, not just political…A middle schooler might be more able to understand that.”
Dr. Khan says the language in this video by History of Maps is neutral, provides historical context, and is something a middle schooler might understand.
Dr. Pressman was blunt when she said, “With high schoolers, let go of the dream that they don’t know about anything. They are learning about it through social media.” She says the war provides a platform for continued dialogue about the importance of digital literacy.
“The more important thing with teenagers is not telling them what is going on but helping them understand the dangerous algorithms of social media,” Dr. Pressman says.
Dr. Pressman says parents can remind teens, “Social media’s algorithm is such that with anything political, it is going to try to give you information that is either the complete opposite of what you believe is true or know to be true to engage you or is going to corroborate something you believe. Either way, it is built for bias.”
Scrolling through images 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.
Dr. Pressman says viewing this content also props up hate and hate groups. She suggests parents enlist teens’ almost natural desire to have a more just world rather than lecturing them on the potential harm they do to their mental health by watching the videos.
Also, gauge your high schoolers’ knowledge and thoughts about the war. “Parents should engage in deeper conversation, asking their high school children how they feel about the war,” Dr. Kipness says. “Children’s feelings, at any age, should be heard and validated.”
Signs the news is affecting your child’s mental health
Parents can say all the right things. But kids, like adults, may still have trouble understanding and coping with the news.
“Any time there are large doses of media coverage, we know it’s harmful to adults’ mental health, let alone kids,” Dr. Pressman says.
Dr. Pressman says that if a child constantly talks about the war or parents notice increased screen time, discuss a break from phones, tablets, and TV.
“Make time for discussions about other things,” Dr. Pressman says. “You want your kids to be engaged citizens of the world…but just deep-diving into the trauma of the war is a clue that it might not be a super-healthy coping mechanism.”
These clues might include changes in the following:
- Sleep patterns
If these issues persist for two or more weeks, Dr. Pressman notes it’s cause for concern.
That’s when you might want to seek help. A therapist might be able to help them sort out their feelings.