How to Talk to Kids about the Israel-Hamas War
Two BU experts: use age-appropriate but real language, avoid dichotomous thinking, and take care of yourself, too
As the war between Israel and Hamas enters its third week, it can be difficult for adults around the world to keep track of every breaking news update, to distill the truth from a slush pile of misinformation and disinformation, and even to sit with their own emotional reactions to the horrors of war. Images of wounded children on either side of the conflict are hard to bear, as is the oft-reported statistic that children make up roughly half of Gaza’s population.
All this is just as true for children, even if they don’t have friends or family in Israel or Gaza. Children in the United States might still catch snippets of regurgitated opinion at recess or overhear a television news report—and worry about the safety and well-being of these children overseas, as well as their own.
So how should parents, teachers, guardians, or other educators talk to children and young people about this war—or other instances of violence and suffering? Two Boston University experts offer advice for getting started. Ellen DeVoe is a School of Social Work professor and a nationally recognized expert in trauma and families. Jeffrey Young is a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development master lecturer and director of its Educational Leadership & Policy Studies program, as well as a former public school superintendent and educator.
Raise the subject first
If it’s likely that a child will hear about something in school, DeVoe recommends opening up a conversation at home first.
“For kids in elementary school, we might pull out a globe and explain that they may hear about what’s going on at the playground or in the lunchroom. Then I’d be sure to make myself available as a parent for any questions they might have,” she says.
Teachers, who care for students from myriad backgrounds and family political affiliations, may have a more challenging task when it comes to global events. “But teachers can certainly respond to distress,” DeVoe says, by offering an open space to ask questions or express emotions in their classrooms.
“This is happening at the university level with undergraduate and graduate students as well, but creating resources for students of all ages to get support outside of the classroom is really helpful,” she says. “One of the things that can happen is that if every teacher brings up what’s happening in every class, that’s a lot of time that students of any age are spending not working on their actual curriculum. And for kids, as well as adults, sometimes it’s more helpful to have something else to focus on for periods of time.”
Listen to the hidden question
“I think it’s important, especially for parents, to try to listen for what kids are asking underneath their questions,” DeVoe says. “Does your child just want to know that they’re safe? Or are they really asking for more information?”
Understanding what a child needs out of a difficult conversation—especially for a child who may not yet have the language to ask for it—can help them feel safe, she says, which may ultimately be what they need. “Little kids usually want to know that they’re safe, and that the grownups around them are doing what they can to keep them safe.”
With older kids, she suggests opening up a conversation by asking what they’ve already heard. This sets the context for a discussion and provides an opportunity for parents or teachers to dispel any misinformation they may have picked up. “We’re helping them sift through sources of information,” she says.
Use real, but age-appropriate, language
DeVoe advises parents, guardians, and teachers to avoid euphemisms when talking about heavy or challenging topics—but at a level that’s developmentally appropriate.
“Kids may ask if someone died, or if people died, and I think it’s important to tell the truth about that, while also reassuring them that you’re here and, again, that they’re safe,” she says. “You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty details with young children, but you do want to talk to them in a truthful way, because what happens is that they will eventually learn what the real words are, and then wonder why you didn’t tell them what was really happening.”
Avoid dichotomous thinking
As a number of high-profile controversies on college campuses and in various school districts have shown, school leaders at every level are increasingly called upon to comment on global events that may affect their students or teachers, for better or worse.
Young, whose career as a former school superintendent for Massachusetts school districts in Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, and Lynnfield, spanned both September 11 and the Boston Marathon bombings, has encountered his fair share of emotionally challenging days.
“My biggest piece of advice is to try to avoid an either-or way of thinking,” he says. “Choosing to blame one side or the other, especially in a highly complex situation, often isn’t that helpful. I always suggest going for a more integrated ‘both/and’ approach, instead.”
In this case, that approach might look like acknowledging the pain for many students, teachers, and families with ethnic, religious, or familial ties to the region, while offering support for anyone who needs it.
Correct misinformation when possible
Sometimes, when a situation such as the war with Israel and Hamas is still unfolding, all a school leader can do is state plainly what we do know about it and what we don’t—and advise patience in the process, Young says. “But if you have the opportunity to clear up misconceptions, it’s important to do that. Just as important, however, is creating and communicating a sense of safety and continuity.
“You want to give kids the space to talk about how they’re feeling or the things they’ve heard, and to make ourselves available to them going forward.”
Focus on the kids…
Young also says that when events around the world start to have an impact inside the schoolhouse or a direct impact on the children within, it’s time to step in.
“Kids have ways of talking to one another that are sometimes very friendly and kind, and sometimes not so much. As an educator, you try as best you can to create a safe and open learning environment, but simply ignoring or pretending that certain issues don’t find their way into the classroom or the schoolhouse is just wishful thinking,” he says, adding that teachers, principals, and superintendents don’t necessarily need to wade into the politics of a situation in order to address its root cause.
“I used to wake up every day and try to create the conditions in which teachers can do their best teaching and students can do their best learning,” Young says. “That was the guiding principle I used to decide when to intercede” with a statement or communication to the wider community.
But check in with yourself, too
To be able to have calm, measured conversations with children and adolescents, the adults on the other side of those discussions have to be calm and measured themselves—qualities that can be difficult to come by after a long day or a particularly grisly news update.
“Whether I’m a parent, a teacher, a professor, if I’m very affected or distressed, that’s going to color how I’m able to talk to my kids or my students,” DeVoe says.
So she suggests that adults take time to process the news and information amongst themselves and to regularly check in with themselves and their community for support.