Younger kids may accidentally receive violent imagery, news clips etc. on YouTube, our tweens and teens may come across it on TikTok and for sure, our older teens are going to be exposed to the heavy weight of the war on SnapChat.
Influencers are starting to post their opinions about the situation in the Middle East calling on our children to pick a side one way or another. All of us are listening to news broadcasts while making dinner, and so whatever age our children are, they will be watching what we tune into, they will be hearing us talk and they will be picking up on our attitudes, fears, furies and anxieties.
What must I do?
- Ground yourself before you leap into a discussion about what you may have just seen online or on the news. This doesn’t mean letting go of the anger or anxiety, it just means organizing it better so you can be conscious of what you choose to let your child hear from you!
- More than ever, this is a moment in time to explain to our children that they are going to be exposed to content that is violent, angry, and often fake in nature. Worse, some of it will be true.
- Think about limiting access to devices and social media:
- For very young kids, think about whether you want them to have access to devices over the next few days at all and if so, we have to really see the urgency in putting filters in place, and for all kids limiting time on devices, . Think about rather letting them watch curated/ pre-downloaded content on Netflix as opposed to scrolling on YouTube.
- For tweens it may be appropriate to delete certain apps altogether (even for the time being). Explain just how damaging seeing graphic content can be.
- For tweens, teens (and adults too)- encourage some time without devices and the news. It can be totally all-consuming.
What must I say:
There are no right words at this time. Full stop. Ultimately there are no scripts for explaining senseless deaths or hostage taking or buildings being blown up before our eyes. But we do have a few suggested ways of showing up:
- Younger children have some basic questions when it comes to war, whether they verbalise them or not: “Am I safe? Are you taking care of me?”
- For older teens may want to know how will this affect their day-to-day life. As always, there are some fundamentals that hold true no matter the child’s age: For all ages, honesty is rule one. With that, here is our rough guide to some pretty rough questions.
- Make sure to answer THEIR question
To start with, always make sure you are answering their question, and not what you think they are asking.
- For younger kids: A younger kid having picked up on a conversation at school may get in the car and say “What is a war?” Before launching into an answer about the war, check that they aren’t talking about a new online game!
When you are sure they are talking about the current war between Israel and Hamas, keep it simple – “War is like two big teams, only the teams are countries fighting each other for something that each feels is really important. Sometimes people fight over land, sometimes they fight because they want a new leader, sometimes people fight because they want a situation to be fair just like when you fight your brother or sister.
- For teens and tweens: Older children may ask harder questions around the humanitarian nature of the war.
In keeping with honesty, we can say _“I don’t know all the answers – I can tell you how I understand it.”
2. Don’t avoid the hard stuff
Proactively engage your kids around these distressing events. Don’t dismiss their feelings even if they overwhelm you. Validate their feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel rage, frustration, confusion, long-term fear for their future. Just sit with it. Don’t correct them, don’t agree…just be with them in the moment. Do the same for the little ones. These are important moments to inform them of the basic safety you may have created in your own home, not as a way of dismissing their feelings but as a way of responding to them.
- No false reassurances reflect and affirm their observations and powerlessness: “When will the war be over?” cannot be met with the glib answer ‘soon.’_
- For younger kids: Think about saying: “We don’t know when this war will be over, but we are safe here”.
- For teens and tweens: There will be deeper questions, like “I feel so freaked out by what I saw on Insta, how do we know they won’t kill us too?”
3. Reflect and affirm their observations and powerlessness, by saying “Even though we are safe here, we all feel a bit helpless right now. But I am glad you are moved by these images. It means things that happen in the world matter to you”. Or simply, “Yes, it is terrifying to watch. I am impressed by your choice to notice things beyond your immediate world.”
4. Put it in context – get out the map
For younger kids: For little ones always reiterate that the war is not in our country and that they are safe. For younger children it may be helpful for them to look at a map to see where Israel/Gaza is located compared to where they live to further illustrate how far from home this is happening, and that they are safe.
For older kids: explaining the concept of land, co-existence, historical conflicts in terms they understand, for e.g. when there is only one Ipad in the house and both kids in the family believe it was there’s to begin with, who had the last turn, which parent sides with which child in the battle all influence the outcome – these simplified concepts help children relate to issues and think about the moral implications of war, peace and everything in between.
5. Focus on hard facts and the good guys
While it’s important to tell the truth and to use real words like war, and death, it is also okay to keep the focus on the fact that there are lots of good people taking action, humanitarian aid workers and volunteers on the ground doing all that they can to help people soldiers and civilians through the crisis. Both things are true.
6. Don’t let CNN move into your home as a permanent guest
At times like this, we are inclined to let the news play constantly in the background – kids pick up imagery and words rather than meaning. The overload of what they are seeing and hearing creates the need for an internal filing cabinet for the visuals and audio clips – and needless to say the filing cabinet is opened at night, just before bed (when all scary monsters are released) or during sleep as nightmares. Only play the news when you are actively listening and the little ones are out of ear shot. Alternatively, with older teens listen actively together so that you can discuss what you have both seen and heard.
When watching the news, don’t launch into off-the-cuff, retaliatory or aggressive statements that you will later regret. If we mirror the aggression we are seeing, our children’s anxieties are pronounced – not only is the war out of control but my parents are too!
7. Make this a learning opportunity: we can’t take everything we see at face value
This is a great time to talk to older teens about how war is often fed by propaganda on both sides and fake news is rife at times like this. Teens are very vulnerable to fake news so remind them to always ask “Is this all true or is some of this fake news?”
Remind our kids that fear lives off fake news and ignorance: This a great time to model the importance of sticking to facts, not fuelling the fires of fake news by sharing alarmist, unverified WhatsApp messages.
8. Really speak to your t/weens, not at them and go in light (even though the subject matter is heavy: – As the parent of any teenager will attest, direct questioning of teens often doesn’t produce constructive responses. Giving our own views is also often only heard as being sanctimonious. So, step away from the soap box and just ask what they have seen online, what they have heard, what do they think about the videos circulating what about them is really affecting them. Maybe they saw an inspiring moment when someone helped someone else – just do the asking to begin with.
9. Remember children are literal! Teens are thrill seekers: When children hear our flippant remarks about a country “burning to the ground”, or “the world is coming to an end” they translate it in concrete terms. This makes a little bit of anxiety a lot of anxiety very quickly. Teens in contrast to our little ones however, ever seeking the thrill, jump on the hysterical bandwagon and become entwined in the drama. They mirror our negativity and pessimism with ease.
10. Let your teens find their voice and use the moment: Online activism is a coping response for some adolescents, especially right now while we’re physically distant. Reposting, retweeting, expressing how they’re feeling, chatting with friends can be a helpful, active kind of coping response. Encourage it, provided it’s true and helpful.
11. Do the things that makes your family feel tight: This is a great time to bed down as a family unit. If that is the proverbial baking, bike-riding or snuggling in bed with a movie, do what makes your family feel “we are still us”.
12. Find the Gold: These times provide great moments for what we at KLIKD call the ‘gold conversations’. When things go wrong out there, these stand out as golden moments to impart your own values as a family. So, in the same way as you might talk pornography when an incident happens at school, this is the time to give your children the broader societal context of what brings war into being. Conversations around tolerance, acceptance, sharing are values we can impart no matter our children’s ages. Our older kids will be able to think more abstractly about injustice and violent versus peaceful protest and discuss their views with parents. By doing so, you can help our tweens and teens to discern long-standing issues, from destructive behaviours.
Ultimately, there are no scripts for explaining senseless deaths or hostage-taking or buildings being blown up before our eyes. What we do have is our presence – our full and unfailing presence. We have to acknowledge that it is scary without necessarily distracting our children at every turn – there is no immediate fix for this. In the end, acknowledge that while you are scared too, it doesn’t stop you from showing up as their parent. Give extra hugs, make their favourite smoothie, give a little room for acting out behaviour. Hold tight to boundaries, especially screen boundaries, let’s all count our blessings, and be kind humans, wherever we can.