10 ways to help your kids handle traumatic current events
Children murdered walking home from shul. Children murdered on the way to their grandparents’ house for Shabbat. Children murdered waiting for a bus with their father. And now, two brothers shot dead at point blank range while driving near their home.
In all, 13 people murdered by terrorists. These past few weeks in Israel have been difficult.
For the past 12 years, I have dedicated my career to children and families who have lost a loved one to terror or tragedy — trying to guide them through the pain and trauma of loss. I have studied psychology and grief counseling, and I have benefited from the experience of learning from and working with bereaved kids at The Koby Mandell Foundation. There, we developed innovative support programs to teach coping mechanisms for healing that help to build resilience in bereaved children.
Perhaps more importantly, I know the pain of terror and traumatic loss personally. When I was 10 years old, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, my eldest brother, Koby Mandell, was murdered by terrorists in the canyon near our home. I remember walking home from school a short time after his murder and wondering what I would do if I found everyone dead upon my arrival. Who would I live with? Would I stay close to home or go live with my aunt far away?
I thought I was the only one with these kinds of thoughts, but when I told my friends and family about these memories, it turned out that many of them had gone through the same process.
I am now an adult with children of my own.
As parents we try to plan for the unknown, yet we do not allow ourselves to imagine the possibilities of something happening to our children. We want to protect them and would prefer they not know about the atrocities happening nearby. But the unfortunate truth is that our children are going to hear about it; news travels fast and bad news travels faster. They may hear about it from a friend or a teacher, or stumble over it online, or overhear it on the public bus.
It is our job as parents to help our kids process the information they receive.
In light of my personal experiences and the reality that this is a painful challenge that our community and our world will only continue to confront, I share some thoughts about how we as parents can help our children in the face of these traumatic events:
- If possible, make sure they hear about the attack from you. Tell them at home, in an environment you can control. Make sure that you are calm and collected. Tell them how upset you are, but do not fall apart. Comfort them. You are the stable one and this is not the time for them to comfort you.
- Tell them the truth. Keep it simple. Give them the bare facts, and leave out the gruesome details. Children are more resilient than we think and can manage more than we give them credit for. That said, there is no need to burden them with information they don’t need. Make sure to give them age-appropriate information and keep in mind that they might hear details at school, from teachers, from their friends, or read online.
- Remember: kids are always listening, especially when you are talking to other adults.
- Don’t minimize the fear they express. Give them a chance to speak, to verbalize their feelings. Make sure you accept their feelings and do not pass judgment.
- Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay, whether sadness, anger, or even nothing. It is all normal and acceptable. There is no expectation from them to feel a certain way.
- Let them know what is being done to protect them and others. Talk to them about how we have a strong army, about the police ready for the next attack. In order to feel safe, they need to know that everything that can be done is being done to protect them.
- I also believe we should talk to them about God. I know people come at religion differently, but I do believe that children respond well to the understanding of a higher power — that we don’t understand everything that happens. Encourage your child to express her/his anger, fear or sadness toward what Hashem allowed to happen. From my personal and professional experience, allowing a child to think of Hashem as a parent whom they can turn to, complain to, even yell at, will help them process their emotions. What is important here is that the emotions come out, rather than be bottled inside.
- Allow them to talk but do not force them to do. They will come to you when and if they are ready. It is your job to be there when they need you. Not all children react in the same way. Each child is unique and processes information differently. They may want to talk to you, or a professional, or they may not feel the need to talk at all. However your child chooses to deal with the situation is the right way for him or her. It is your job to make sure that your child knows that you are open to do whatever s/he needs in order to process and heal.
- Our world is flush with images on social media. I discourage viewing the videos of an act of terror that circulate. Explain to your children that knowing and seeing are very different, and for their own mental health discourage them from viewing the horrific images.
- Do something positive together. This category is divided into two. Children and teens.
We want to teach our children to add good to the world in the face of evil. For younger children, it can be a small gesture like giving tzedakah (charity), lighting a candle or doing a good deed.
Many teenagers feel like they NEED to DO something; they want to take action in the face of evil. They cannot see injustice in the world, the pain and do nothing. They may want to go to a demonstration, go to the funeral or the shiva house. You can try to tell them not to go, but that will either frustrate them or push them to go behind your back. Perhaps go with them. Take them to the funeral or shiva; prepare them for the sadness they may see but be there to protect and direct them.
Another possibility is to direct your teen to use their talents to create. It could be a drawing, a song or even a special program in memory of the fallen. Whatever your teens choose to do, be there with them to talk it through and to know when it is time to go home and process.
In general, always keep the lines of communication open for any future questions they may have and any help they may need.
These are some of the techniques we use with our campers at Camp Koby and Yosef that have proven most effective over the past 20 years.
With the sincere prayer that they will be irrelevant very soon, but the painful recognition that this might not just be the case, I hope these suggestions help you and your family during these difficult times.