Thinking of the Israeli children and babies held hostage the past 47 days has been almost unbearable. Their kidnapping is the worst nightmare of every parent – we can’t help but imagine ‘what if this was my child?’
At night especially, we’ve struggled to push aside their faces – it’s impossible to sleep with these young souls in our minds – but nonetheless they have been there, pretty continuously, part of our consciousness since October 7.
Research over the years shows that the impact of trauma is greater on children than adults. The word trauma comes from the Greek – it means wounded – we are talking about wounded psyches. Universally children have higher rates for developing PTSD – they are more vulnerable. Now finally, ending the acute phase of this traumatic ordeal, these children are coming home.
The Talmud teaches that whoever saves a single life saves an entire world. Each of these children is an entire world. And each is a different world. Their life experiences During, Before and After this trauma are different – and will shape how each responds.
They are likely to have had different experiences during their captivity – at this time we don’t know the conditions. They were never visited by the Red Cross.
Were they with grown-ups? – mothers and fathers, grandparents who might look after them – with all their heart – even if they were not their own? Did Hamas allow for that sort of nurturing and reassurance? Were they with other children? So they could find some form of comfort with each other? Or, and the thought is so heart breaking – were some of these children alone? Abandoned and terrified?
Did they suffer hunger? Pain? Threats of being hurt or killed? Medical attention or lack of – provided humanely or cruelly? Sensory deprivation? Darkness? No natural light. No nature. No place to play or run. ‘Goodnight Tunnel,’ a twist on the popular ‘Goodnight M,oon’ bedtime story, imagines the night terrors of those children kidnapped by Hamas.
Before October 7 each of these children had different life experiences, different families, different challenges. These many elements, both protective and detrimental, shape each child, how they experienced the captivity and how they will respond in the future.
Lastly after their captivity each of these children are coming out to very different situations. Some are coming out to their parents’ arms waiting to enfold and embrace them. Parents who may be understandably terrified to let their daughter or son out of their sight are in themselves a risk factor.
Some children are coming out while their parents remain hostage. These children will not be enveloped by the loving arms of their mum or dad – others will look after them whilst these children continue to miss and be scared for their parents.
Yet other children have suffered the worst – seeing their parents being killed, an unspeakable trauma.
We know that trauma affects the body, the mind and spirit, and even memory. Each of these children is different and each will respond in her or his way.
Yet, there are general things we know about trauma in children.
Trauma affects the body – memories are buried and stored inside the body. So, children’s bodies remain alert – their hearts continue to beat too fast, they are hypervigilant, on edge, unable to relax. They often have difficulties sleeping, headaches and stomach aches.
Trauma stays in the mind and affects the spirit. After their return, many children are likely to be in an ongoing state of anxiety, moving to alarm and terror quickly. They may have intrusive disturbing images and struggle to get these out of their minds. They may be hypersensitive, continually looking out for danger, with strong physical and emotional reactions to reminders and triggers. They may have difficulties concentrating, resulting in difficulties at school. Some may have learnt to disassociate, blocking out unbearable feelings of fear and distress, shutting down and becoming unresponsive.
Trauma affects memory – the hippocampus, which controls our sense of time and sequence, does not function normally. So traumatic memories are not anchored in time and instead invade the present – as flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts.
Traditional approaches to trauma therapy begin when the trauma has ended, when there is a sense of safety. But that is not the case in Israel today. There is ongoing threat. There are frequent sirens. The society and the adults around are all in a state of heightened stress.
Most of these children will not be able to go back to their known environments, their homes, their kibbutzim and villages, their familiar schools. This adds to their sense of chaos, dislocation, loss and grief. It is likely their parents are also significantly traumatised. All these things will affect the children.
These children will need much love. They will need to feel they are safe. They will need to learn to trust again, that they can be looked after, protected. They will need security and routine and predictability. These are not easy things in Israel today. It is likely many of them and their parents will need ongoing trauma informed support and therapy.
All of us are overjoyed and relieved these children are coming home. We will do whatever possible to support them. One can only hope that Israel’s current extraordinary solidarity and communal spirit will contribute to the healing of these children and their families.