What's Happening In Israel Is Hard To Explain To Kids. Here’s What A Psychologist Suggests.
If you’re struggling to address what’s unfolding to your kids, try these clinical psychologist-approved talking points.
I spend much of the year in Tel Aviv, Israel, so I always knew that there would be a time when I'd have to speak with my young children about the dark sides of life. But I wasn't remotely prepared for that day to actually come.
My oldest may only be two, but it's clear by his long and frequent hugs recently that he senses something is off. And while I'm doing my best to keep his routine as close to normal as possible, it has been days since he has left our apartment. He has commented on the sirens, "booms," and jet plane sounds we hear all day long, but he hasn't specifically asked about them — and I struggle with when, how, or even if to address them.
Of course, you don’t have to be in Israel to struggle to find the words to tell your kids what’s going on. After all, parents around the world have been urged to delete social media apps on their children's devices so that they avoid seeing the disturbing images being broadcast by Hamas.
So, how — given the dire nature of the Middle East right now — can parents talk to their kids about it?
There is no right age for this conversation.
That said, she recommends that kids hear sensitive information their parents in the context of a safe and loving relationship. "Clear, direct, honest information shared while connected to a loving, trusted adult is what helps children understand the world around them,” she says.
If your kids may hear about this at school from peers, online, or from the news on TV, Kennedy says that she would either bring it up to them ahead of time or be ready to discuss it if they do hear it elsewhere.
To start a proactive conversation with your kids, she suggests sharing words along the lines of:
- "I want to tell you about something really serious and sad that is happening. I want to tell you about this so that if you hear about it at school or from friends, you will know what they are talking about. This might have us feeling a lot of different things — whatever you're feeling is OK… I'm here with you."
Two things can be true.
Anyone who follows Kennedy knows her signature "two things can be true" framework, and she brilliantly applies it to the situation at hand.
"We don't want to flood kids with fear, and when kids ask questions, they are ready for truthful answers. Using real words (invasion, rockets, death) builds trust. Kids do not need all of the details — you know your child and family best. I recommend starting slow, sticking to the facts, and using your child's reactions and questions as a barometer for whether they've heard enough or are ready for more information."
She notes that these conversations will likely bring up big feelings for our kids and us. "Make space for your child to react, however that may be. During your conversation, pause and ask, 'What's this like to talk about?' It's OK if your child remains silent. You can share, 'I know, it's heavy stuff.'"
Remember that it's fine that you don't "have all of the answers." If your child asks you a question you don't have an answer to, Kennedy outlines these words to share:
- "I don't know, sweetie. I don't have an answer for that. I wish I did."
- "You have a lot of very good, important questions. I have questions, too. I don't have all the answers, though. I wish I did. And when I know more, I'll share with you, I promise."
- "I don't know. It doesn't feel good to not have all of the answers, huh? Something that I do know is we have each other to hold when things don't feel good."
Presence is key — put down your phone.
"While our words may never feel like enough, our presence in tough moments will always matter. Whether it's a long embrace or cuddle, singing a familiar song, or reading a favorite childhood book, know that our kids will remember how they feel with us more than any specific words we say," explains Kennedy.
Lastly, she says, encourage an open dialogue. "We want our kids to feel comfortable coming back to us as questions or feelings arise." Here are some words she suggests to bring this idea to action:
- "We can keep talking about this. In fact, it's important we do because you may have questions or feelings come up. I'm here for all of them. You can ask me anything."
Remember: We are all doing the best we can.
For those of us who feel guilty because we're glued to news updates on our phones or find ourselves repeatedly crying in front of our children, Kennedy reminds us that we are living through the unthinkable.
"Amidst horror, struggling is the best that any of us can do. Give yourself credit for all you're doing. It's likely that allowing your child to watch lots of TV is what is allowing you to get some time to yourself or to call a friend. Your needs matter — always and especially in times like this."
Kennedy agrees with others — it's OK to cry in front of your kids. "What scares kids is noticing changes in their environment (you crying, sad, or upset) and not having an adult to help them make sense of it." So, if and when you feel overcome with emotion, she suggests sharing words like:
- "You're right to notice I'm (sad/scared). Just like kids can feel that way, adults can too. I can be (sad/scared) and take care of you."
- "Even when I'm crying, I am still your strong mom who will take care of you."
- "I am afraid. I am. It's OK to be afraid sometimes. Even when we are afraid, we can be strong."
Rely on sensory comfort and physical presence.
"In horrific moments, when you can't answer your kids' fears in the same way you may have during safer times, rely on sensory comfort and physical presence," she says. Kennedy suggests the following:
Meet Your Child's Fear With:
- A long embrace and cuddle
- Singing a familiar song (think about a lullaby from their younger years)
- Reciting a favorite poem or reading a favorite childhood book
- Snuggling with a blankie or favorite stuffie
- Sharing a mantra over and over while you hold your child (i.e., "Mommy is here, I'm right here with you, Mommy is here, I'm right here with you, Mommy is here, I'm right here with you… Mommy is here with you.”)
Words of Connection:
- "We have each other to hold when we feel scared. You are not alone. We are not alone. We can be scared, and we can be brave."
- "Yes, sweetie. That makes sense. This is a scary time. And this is also true — I am right here with you. Right here."
- "I can tell you have lots of worries right now. It makes sense that you are afraid. Sometimes, when I'm afraid, I like to talk about things that make me smile, like going to the beach and playing outside, or that one time when… (fill in the blank with a funny memory of your child). Do you remember that? You can feel scared, and we can remember fun times."
Ultimately, you're going to have to give yourself grace. In dark times, you're doing what you can — and as long as your child knows you're right there with them, that's enough.