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Helping Kids Cope with Terror

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dovid Hochberg

How do we educate our children to feel the pain of the Jewish People without overwhelming them?

Terror works by cloaking insignificant everyday actions and events in a shroud of suspicion. Will I be able to buy tomatoes today at the store without being blown apart? Will my flight land uneventfully? Is that girl walking next to me really a terrorist?
The terrorist takes our imaginations, those private and creative domains of our own minds, and twists them into weapons against us, surrounding us with fear.

The mind and imagination of a child is even more fragile. Children want to feel that the world is safe. They want to think that the people they love will always be around, and that everyone in the world is good and kind. They want to trust others and feel secure when they go out. Terror shatters every one of these thoughts.

The terror in Israel is tragic, and it is our responsibility to feel the pain of our fellow Jews, wherever they are.

The question is: do we share this pain with our children? Should we tell our children about terror in Israel and other tragedies that strike our collective Jewish family? And if yes, how do we tell our children? How do we educate our children to feel the pain of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People, while not scaring and overwhelming them so they can't sleep at night or function in school? On the other side of the coin, how do we teach our children to feel a connectedness to the suffering of Klal Yisrael when we ourselves don't feel connected?

We have a responsibility to train our children to feel the joy and sadness of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

"Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh" - Jews are guarantors for one another; what affects one of us, affects all of us. It is our responsibility to feel the joy and sadness of our Jewish brothers and sisters. And yes, we do have a responsibility to imbue our children with this same closeness and feeling for Klal Yisrael. This is a very important lesson that needs to be taught. However, there are three factors to keep in mind when instilling this lesson within our children.

The first important factor to understand is that it is not our responsibility to raise children who lightly gloss over tragedies or put on happy faces during horribly difficult events. It is our responsibility to give our children the emotional strength, tools, and bitachon (trust in God) to face whatever comes their way in life. Children have an enormous capacity for strength; it is our role to help shape and channel that capacity into productive life lessons.

The second factor is to be aware of our own response. In order to effectively educate our children to empathize with the pain and suffering of Klal Yisrael, we must pay close attention to our own reactions to tragedy. Does the news affect us deeply, or do we just shake our heads, say "nebach," (shame) and move on?

Generally, people respond to the news of a tragedy in one of three ways:

  1. They "turn it off" and try not to really think about it.
  2. They become completely overwhelmed and paralyzed by the news.
  3. They are truly affected by what happened and respond in a normal, non-disabling way.

Our children learn from watching. We can't expect them to run out and say Psalms for Klal Yisrael when we don't say Psalms for Klal Yisrael. It would be unrealistic to expect our children to deeply feel the pain of shattered lives when we turn the page without as much as a sigh.

On the other hand, if we become paralyzed by the news, we risk overwhelming and traumatizing our children. The psyche of children is more fragile than the psyche of adults, and we must proceed with caution when talking to them, even if we feel like falling apart. The fact that we are so upset is more disturbing to them than the actual tragic event, and any lesson we wish to provide will be lost.

Pay close attention to the way you respond to tragedy. You can expect your children to react the same way.

The third factor is to closely gauge how your children will react. As parents, although we may not be perfectly accurate in our assessment, we usually have a pretty good idea of how each of our children will respond to tragedy. One child may be able to understand and react to the news in a healthy way, while another child may be incapable of understanding what happened or may become overwhelmed if we share too much.

Sharing too much can overwhelm our children, and sharing a small amount with a fearful and anxious child can be just as damaging. Constantly gauge the reactions of your children as you are sharing the news. Are they getting anxious? Are they ignoring what you are saying? Do they keep telling you they want to go play? There are many ways children let us know that they are being overwhelmed, and it is only through paying close attention that we can be sure we are not doing more harm than good.

Here are some general guidelines to follow when discussing a traumatic event with your children:

(A) It is not helpful to tell children what to feel or not to feel. We may be tempted to say, "Don't worry," "Just think about other things," or "Don't be scared," but such reassurances don't work. They are worried, they are thinking about what happened, and they are scared. It is much more helpful to listen with a caring ear and a warm hug. You can say, "That was such a scary thing!" or "That makes me feel sad, too." Acknowledge what they are feeling instead of trying to push their feelings aside.

(B) Give your children the actual facts about what happened and try to make things as simple as possible. Sheltering your children does not work. Kids hear about events in carpool, on the news, or at school, and what they hear may be far from accurate. Their fears and anxieties may also make up part of their perception of what happened. Communicate the basic facts to your children in a loving, caring way and encourage them to ask as many questions as they would like. You can also ask them questions, such as "I thought ... when I heard about what happened. What went through your mind when you heard?" or "Do you think they were scared when...?" or "What do you think they felt when...?" Don't overexpose them to the news.

Your children will take their cues on how to handle challenging situations from the way you respond.

(C) The most effective way to reduce your children's anxieties is to reduce your own. Your children will take their cues on how to handle challenging situations from the way you respond. You should be honest about your emotions but convey the message that God gives each person the strength they need to handle what He gives them. (After a tragedy, children relate more to this message than to a message that God loves us. That usually prompts the question of "If God loves us, why did He let those people get killed?")

(D) It is especially important to reassure small children, since their primary (and perhaps only concern) is whether or not they themselves, their parents, and their immediate surroundings are going to be okay. Tell them that they will be safe and reassure them as often as needed.

(E) Your children may talk repeatedly - that is, more than you feel is necessary - about the tragedy, and you should let them talk. Psychologically, talking about an event gives people a sense of control. As adults we do this all the time. Whenever we hear about a bus bombing or that someone passed away, we immediately need to know details. Did he have an illness? For how long? Where did the bombing occur? In what area? Asking questions and learning as much as we can about uncontrollable events give us a sense of control. Children are the same way.

(F) Your children may feel a need to fantasize about what happened. For example, upon hearing that a terrorist murdered a child in a school, your child might say, "If that terrorist came near me, I would jump in the air and give him 10 karate kicks," or "I would dodge the bullets!" Let your children be as expressive and graphic as possible in their fantasy; it is their way of maintaining a sense of control. You will find that even though they may acknowledge that they are describing a fantasy, it is still helpful and calming to them. They may also recreate the event in their play. Allow them to play, reflect back what they are saying, and let them to share their feelings, even if they make shocking statements.

Despite your best efforts not to overwhelm your children, they may be traumatized by the tragic event. Here are some signs that your children may require professional help:

  1. Your children suddenly are unable to concentrate or refuse to go to school after a tragic event. They may complain more frequently about an upset stomach or other physical ailment and refuse to leave the house.

  2. They show signs of regression. For example, they may begin to use "baby talk" or wet their beds. They may ask for the light to be left on in their rooms or want to snuggle more frequently.

  3. There are changes in your child's sleeping or eating patterns. They may experience restlessness or become more irritable. Some children become more aggressive and begin to act out now for the first time.

  4. Your children experience nightmares or other anxious behavior. They may cling to you when you leave the house or try to stop you from leaving.

Although many symptoms that follow a traumatic event are likely to pass, things may not proceed smoothly. In today's day and age, there are excellent treatments that can quickly and dramatically reduce the anxiety and tensions associated with a tragedy or trauma. You know your children better than anyone else, so be alert for any unusual changes.

In conclusion, children have the incredible inner strength and capacity to handle horrific events. Provide them with simple, factual information, and reassure them that they are safe and that all is in the hands of God. Pay attention to signs that your children may be psychologically overwhelmed through signs like regression, increased hostility and other anxious behaviors, as well as changes in sleeping patterns. Seek professional help if you are concerned. Encourage your children to share their feelings and creatively express their fantasies and thoughts about the event.

If we take the time to teach our children the life lessons that can be found everywhere we look, they will develop the emotional strength, tools, and trust in God to face whatever comes their way.

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