Family Psychotherapist Urges Parents Not to Shutdown Conversations About War With Children

As seen in on October 19, 2023, by Jody Coffey

“When a child doesn’t understand something, they tend to fill in the gaps themselves.”

It’s completely natural for parents and guardians to want to protect their children from distressing and devastating images of conflict.

However, living in the digital age means that young people will likely be exposed to images and videos of what is unfolding or hear about it at school.

A family psychotherapist advises that ‘being protective of children doesn’t mean hiding them from information’ and urges parents to fight the urge to shutdown conversations about the Israel-Hamas war. They have shared advice on how to speak to young people about conflict.

Use age-appropriate language

Fiona Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, starts by saying parents should use age-appropriate language.

“It’s likely children will hear different opinions, viewpoints and versions of what’s happening from classmates at school, and it’s our role as parents to help guide them with the facts in an age-appropriate way.

“Shutting down conversations with children may exacerbate their anxiety about the conflict and lead them to withdraw.”

She reminds us that children aren’t usually equipped with the same level of understanding about conflict as adults are – especially when it comes to history and backstory.

“When they hear distressing information or see graphic images, it can hit them really hard at the moment.

“When a child doesn’t understand something, they tend to fill in the gaps themselves, which can lead to building an inaccurate narrative of events and confusion,” Yassin adds.

Parents, carers and teachers, are have important roles to play when it comes to the information children are being exposed to and ensuring it’s delivered in a way they can understand.

Yassin says it’s ‘essential’ to stick with the facts , keep language about conflict as neutral as possible, and avoid using terminology such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘attacker’.

Highlight to your child how far away they are from the conflict

Highlight to your child how far away they are from the conflict is another way to lessen anxiety and help them to file the information correctly.

“The geographical location of the conflict won’t necessarily file with children correctly. If a child hears that people are being kidnapped or murdered, particularly children or parents, it may bring a lot of fear and anxiety to a child and lead them to think the same thing could happen in their own home.

“Showing your child the proximity of the conflict will enable them to file this information correctly. Use a world globe or a map to show them where the conflict is happening and where you live in relation to that,” Yassion advises.

She says that by doing this, you will avoid dismissing or pushing away what’s happening, instead ‘putting a protective layer of cotton wool’ around your child.

Use reliable and trustworthy news sources

When it comes to accessing news, the family psychologist urges parents to ensure their child is looking at reliable and trustworthy news sources.

“Acknowledge that information about the conflict may be coming at you or your child in a different way depending on your cultural or religious viewpoint.

“This is also an important time to remember that the headlines and images you or your child see may take a different slant depending on the source of the news,” she explains.

Making sure that your child’s device, if used without supervision, take a look and make sure they are only looking at factual, reliable, and trustworthy sources about the conflict. Similarly, if they want to read an article or watch a news feature about the ongoing conflict, make you know exactly what they’ll be reading and seeing first, and that is age-appropriate.

Answer questions with facts

If your child has questions, that’s okay. But always answer the questions with facts and respect the emotions that arise.

The Israel-Hamas conflict is one that is incredibly complex. It’s important to be honest if you don’t have the answers or knowledge about it. Instead, be honest with your child if you do not know something and agree to come back to them when you’ve educated yourself.

“Your child may want to ask questions about the current conflict depending on what they’ve already been taught at school, or based on their own lived experience.

“Do not brush off big fears, answer questions using facts, do not give them alarming information, and try not to be reactionary and emotive,” Yassin urges.

Giving your child a clear understanding of the conflict will encourage them to share this with their peers. If you give your child a clear understanding of the conflict, it’s likely they will share this clear understanding with their peers.

The devastation occurring right now will understandably bring up feelings of anxiety and sadness for both you and your child. There may be tears, hair twirling, pacing, waking up at night, or an increased clinginess. This is okay.

Ensure your child has a safe space to talk

Children who are more anxiety prone will be more sensitive to distressing words and imagery, therefore it is important to ensure your child has a safe space to talk.

“It may be helpful to put an extra layer of protection around your child by making the school aware of what’s going on.

“If you have family or friends in any of the areas that are affected by conflict and the anxiety or distress around this is impacting your child, take professional advice.

Yassin also suggests arranging a session with a school counsellor, a pastoral lead, or a mental health professional that can also give them a safe space to talk through their thoughts and feelings.

If they want to help out and do something to help those affected by the devastation, welcome it. This may manifest as donating, attending peaceful protests (if age appropriate), community discussions, social media posts, and so on.