Updated: May 11
It may be the circling helicopters or the sound of police and ambulance sirens or the voice of the newscaster on TV or the radio. All of it triggers fears and stress in adults here in Israel. These rockets and ramming attacks can come, anytime without warning. Yes there are red alert sirens, and bomb shelters to run to and missile defense systems to stop it before it reaches us. However, the attacks are random and everyone is a target.
In times of crisis and stress we sometimes forget our children are watching us. We may want to give into our fears, not leave the house and keep our kids home. But we all know this is not practical and not the answer. As parents we must also remember that children will learn coping skills from us. What they pick up on should not be underestimated. We need to show our children how we are coping despite the difficult and stressful situation. Our behavior influences how our children will react.
How can we build their resilience?
Adults need to help children feel safe and help them handle their emotional reactions. Our guidance will make the difference between being overwhelmed and developing life-long emotional and psychological coping skills. It is helpful to provide opportunity for children to discuss their concerns and to help them separate real from imagined fears. It is also important to limit exposure to media coverage of violence.
Emotional responses vary in nature and severity from child to child
Fear: When children hear rumors at school and pick up bits of information from television, their imaginations may run wild.
Loss of control: Children may grasp at any control that they have, including refusing to cooperate, go to school, part with favorite toys, or leave their parents.
Anger: Anger is a common reaction but is often expressed at those to whom children are closest. Children may direct anger toward classmates and neighbors because they can’t express their anger toward terrorists or countries with whom we are at war.
Loss of stability: Children can feel insecure when their usual schedules and activities are disrupted, increasing their level of stress and need for reassurance.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do?
Everyone, including adults, feels stressed during times of crisis and uncertainty. It is important to differentiate between rumors and confirmed facts and give children correct and trustworthy information according to his or her age, level of development, and sense of connection to the situation. If your children seem to need help beyond what is normally available at home or school, seek mental health services in your community. For most children, adults can provide adequate support by the following actions:
Acknowledge children’s feelings:
Knowing what to say is often difficult. When no other words come to mind, a hug and saying “This is really hard for you/us” will work.
Try to recognize the feelings underlying children’s actions and put them into words. Say something like, “I can see you are feeling really scared about this”
Sometimes children may voice concern about what will happen to them if a parent becomes a terror victim. If this occurs, try saying, “You will be well taken care of. You won’t be alone. Let me tell you our plan.”
At times when your children or students are most upset, don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to children, “Don’t cry, everything will be okay,” does not reflect how the child feels and does not make them feel better. Nevertheless, don’t forget to express hope and faith that things will be okay.
Always be honest with children. Share your fears and concerns while reassuring them that responsible adults are in charge.
Expect and respond to changes in behavior:
All children will likely display some signs of stress. Some immature, aggressive, oppositional behaviors are normal reactions to the uncertainty of this situation.
It is important to maintain consistent expectations for behavior. Be sure children understand that the same rules apply.
Some children may have difficulty at bedtime. Maintain a regular bedtime routine. Be flexible about nightlights, siblings sharing a room, sleeping with special toys, and sitting with your child as they fall asleep. Reading stories or singing songs with your children help ourselves and our children relax and sleep.
Children may play “war,” pretend to blow things up, or include images of violence in artwork and writing. This may be upsetting, but it is a normal way for children to express their awareness of events around them. Gently redirect children away from violent play or efforts to “replay” the terrorist attacks, but don’t be overly disapproving unless the play is genuinely aggressive. Talk with children about their art or written images and how they feel. Share your reactions. Help them to consider the consequences of war or terrorist acts—what happens if a building blows up or a bomb explodes? For children who seek pretend play as an outlet, encourage role playing of the doctors, firemen, policemen, etc. who have helped to save lives. If a child seems obsessed with violent thoughts or images for more than a few days, talk to a mental health professional.
Some children may be at increased risk of suicide because of their emotional reaction to increased stress and any pre-existing mental health problems. Consult a mental health professional immediately if your child shows signs of suicidal thinking or talk, or other self- destructive behaviors.
Extra support, consistency, and patience will help children return to routines and their more usual behavior patterns. If children show extreme reactions (aggression, withdrawal, sleeping problems, etc.), talk to a mental health professional.
Keep adult issues from overwhelming children:
Don’t let your children focus too much of their time and energy on this crisis. If children are choosing to watch the news for hours each evening, find other activities for them. You may also need to watch the news less intensely and spend more time in alternative family activities.
Take time for yourself and try to deal with your own reactions to the situation as fully as possible. This, too, will help your children and students.
Coordinate between school and home:
Tell your child’s teacher if he or she is having difficulties and what strategies make your child feel better. If necessary, seek the help of your school psychologist, counselor or social worker.
Teachers should let parents know if their child is exhibiting stress in school. Provide parents with helpful suggestions or information on community resources. Maintain general academic and behavioral expectations, but be realistic about an individual child’s coping skills.
Teachers should share with parents information about relevant discussions that take place in the classroom. This will help parents understand what their children are learning and can foster thoughtful discussion at home.