As parents, one of our fundamental instincts is to protect our children. The extreme violence happening in the Middle East, including the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel, the horrifying deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children, and the resulting sadness and fear permeating closer to home have all weighed heavily on families.
Social media has also changed the way news and related images are distributed, making it all but impossible to control what our kids are seeing, particularly those with devices of their own. “Social media allows for media and news consumption to happen individually. So whereas families used to sit around the television and watch the news, which gives them a chance to discuss in real time, today’s kids are consuming news on their device or laptop on their own, without any real-time support in processing disturbing content,” says Laura Ordoñez, Head of Digital Content at Common Sense Media.
According to Ordoñez, the graphic content that is now available on, say YouTube, is tantamount to images that used to only be accessible on the dark web—terrifying for adults, and traumatizing for children who might not have context for it, or be able to turn it off quickly. So being prepared to talk about the news becomes all that much more important.
To help know how to support our children of all ages, particularly in this new hyper digital age, we spoke to Dr. Aliza Pressman, author of the upcoming book The 5 Principles of Parenting. Here’s her advice, starting with the youngest of children:
Ideally, a toddler can be protected from the news and images. “Don’t have the news on TV, news radio on in the car or have them on devices with internet access,’ says Dr. Pressman. But if they do see something, you can explain it in an age-appropriate way. “You can say that people far away are fighting, but here you are safe. This is the primary message—your children are safe and not in Israel or Gaza, which is far away,” says Dr. Pressman. She adds: “As adults we need to regulate ourselves, even if we may be feeling heightened panic.”
Elementary School Age
Kids at this age may hear more, at school or online. “Ask them what they know and meet them where they are,” says Dr. Pressman, who adds that you should consider your own emotions and how the situation is affecting you before you respond to your children.
“You can ask them what is war? What does that mean? Younger elementary school children aren’t ready for details, but older ones may be able to learn about the difference between soldiers and civilians, for instance. But if eyes are glazing over and they don’t seem interested, let it go,” says Dr. Pressman.
She recommends also pointing out that just because images are accessible doesn’t mean they have to look. She says: “You can say if you see something that is scary, cover your eyes and let a grown up know.
“I cannot emphasize enough to treat this age group like thoughtful humans who are trying to figure out the meaning of things. But at the same time, don’t put the weight of the world on their shoulders,” says Dr. Pressman. With tweens, you can talk about not only what they’re seeing, but where that information is coming from, she says: “You can ask them some deeper questions while still meeting them where they are. For instance, do you know what terrorism is? You can also ask them where they are getting their news—what sources? Ask them how the different sources are talking about different parts of the news, and what that means.
In 2023, you can’t realistically hide teens from these realities, nor should you. What you want to avoid, says Dr. Pressman, is a young person becoming obsessed with following the unfolding of events at the expense of their mental health. “You can have rules in your household, like we are cutting back on social media for now. Or you can say, before you post something, let’s check through it together,” suggests Dr. Pressman.
On the other hand, you may have a teen that doesn’t want to learn about or discuss the crisis—and Dr. Pressman says to follow their lead instead of worrying that they are being apathetic. “These kids might be shutting down if they don’t want to talk about it. It’s so upsetting and there is so much information at their fingertips. Giving them space to care about what lip gloss color they are going to wear might be the best thing for them right now,” she explains.
You may also see other signs that your child is distressed by what they’re seeing and hearing. “A total screen break may be warranted if you’re seeing mood changes, eating habit changes, irritability, going into their room and slamming their door when they didn’t before,” says Dr. Pressman. If a complete screen break is impossible, tell them you’ll read articles with them for a few minutes a day, and process it together.
Kids of all ages (and adults) can also try to turn grief and worry into something productive, such as making bracelets to send to charity, or collecting goods to send to the Middle East. Says Dr. Pressman: “There is a famous saying when you feel helpless, get helpful. Doing these things gets you out of a spiral and into action.”
Whatever you do or say over the next few weeks, the experts agree that saying the “wrong” thing but keeping the dialogue open is better leaving kids to figure out the facts and their feelings on their own. “Since kids live in such a digitally immersive world, both in school and at home, it’s more likely they’ll be exposed to these events before we realize it, so it’s important to not only take preventative action, but have a plan of reaction,” says Ordoñez.
This dialogue isn’t just about this war—it’s about creating a path for them to come to you with anything. Says Ordoñez: “Having open and honest age-appropriate conversations can give kids a sense of security and understanding, which is likely to help them process what’s happening in healthier ways, while also feeling safe to come to parents and trusted adults with questions and concerns in the future.”
Dr. Pressman agrees, saying if you have no words for the situation, you can simply say that. “You can say I don’t know what to say but I’m here.”
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