WATCH: How to talk to kids about the Israel-Hamas war

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News and social media are saturated with horrifying images from the war between Israel and Hamas. Since the war began on Oct. 7, thousands of people have been killed and thousands more are injured. As adults digest daily updates, kids may also be aware of the war and have feelings or questions that are difficult to answer.

“A lot of times, people underestimate what children have picked up when there’s a conflict,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, Director for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which is part of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “When important events happen in the world, whether it affects the child, the children, directly or indirectly, it is useful to discuss it with them.”

Schonfeld said children are going to be aware of current events, regardless of whether their parents speak to them about it. In fact, avoiding such heavy topics, especially in cases of trauma like war, can create unintended consequences like children thinking it’s “not appropriate to discuss” them.

“As a result, they may not share with you what their concerns are already,” he said. “And so we want to start the conversation, because we want children to come to us, trusted adults that they know well.”

“All of the science tells us if adults will bring it up, they have a better chance of helping children cope with what’s going on,” said Robin Gurwitch, a child psychologist at Duke University.

Here are some tips for parents or caregivers navigating conversations about the war, or any difficult event.

Before starting the conversation, check your own emotions

Adults should monitor their own consumption of the news and “talk with other adults about how that information makes them feel,” Schonfeld said.

“If you’re too angry or too upset yourself, it may make it difficult for you” to have a conversation.
Processing some of how you’re feeling about this will help you talk to children, he said.

This is especially important for parents who have been affected by the war or similar events in the past to avoid re- traumatization for themselves, or their children.

“It’s also important that adults think about what emotional reactions they’re having so that they can try and determine what is impacting – in a significant way – how I am talking to my child about this,” he said.

Answer questions honestly, but keep age in mind

The younger the child, the more broad the conversation should be, Gurwitch said. The older the child, the more likely that they are seeing what’s going on around social media and talking about it with their friends.

Gurwitch said when talking to teenagers, “we may get more by saying, ‘Tell me what your friends are saying about all of this’” and then using that as a way of launching the conversation and hearing more about their feelings.

It could also be helpful to give children the space to say what they’ve felt or seen before jumping in to try to explain or reassure them, Schonfeld said. Both Gurwitch and Schonfeld suggest that it might be helpful for parents and children to limit their social media consumption.

Schonfeld said that regardless of the conversation, or when it happens, it’s necessary for adults to keep in mind what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate to share.

“Give them enough information so they feel they know what’s happened, they have their questions answered and they know how to cope with assets and feelings. But it isn’t useful to children and frankly, it isn’t useful for adults to just learn about every tragic element of what’s uncovered,” he said.

Check in with kids about how they are feeling, or what they are hearing at school

Gurwitch said children that are part of Jewish or Muslim communities can face bullying and stereotyping in schools during events like this war, especially if they are in the minority. This is a particular fear as concerns about hate crimes grow.

“It is very likely that children in both of those groups are going to experience overt statements or microaggressions,” she said. “Help them identify trusted adults. It is also important to help them consider, ‘If you say something, if you see something, what are your responsibilities? What should you do?’” Gurwitch said it may be better to suggest the child goes to a trusted person to tell them what happened, or support the person affected, rather than necessarily intervening.

This likely won’t be one conversation, but one of many

Especially in times of war, information and conditions change quickly, so it is important to check in with kids at a frequency that is appropriate for the individual child and their age and developmental stage. Gurwitch suggests taking the time to parse through a family’s own values and beliefs to be able to give your child a foundation to return to.

“This is also an opportunity … to have that conversation, to lay that groundwork, to reinforce those teachings to our children in a very difficult time,” she said.

Keep in mind that this likely won’t be the last conversation on the topic

“Children may bring it up multiple times,” she said, noting that school age or younger children are likely to ask the same question over and over. “It’s not that they’re wanting different answers. They’re just trying to process the answer that you continue to give them.”

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