Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox, Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai Crisis Services, has written us a bit of advice for parents who want to speak to their children about war.
As news of war, invasion, evacuations, and military patrols reach the ears of ourselves and our children, it is expected that we and our young ones will have a variety of reactions. For some, there is a cataclysmic implication as we think of some of our religious traditions about where this is happening. For others, the drumbeat of war is all too familiar from history. For many of our children, who have no real precedent for making sense of such real events, there is confusion, there is disbelief, failure to comprehend possible implications for the world and the Jewish people, and for still others, there is fear which arises in different forms.
While it is tempting to reassure children and to try “moving on” rather than stay apprehensive, it is first essential that we listen to our children, encouraging them to share what they have heard or read, and what they think and feel. Well before we attempt to quell their worries, give them the open door to share their worries, or whatever other reactions they may be having.
Here are a few parenting pointers which we recommend in approaching and supporting your children at this time. They are based on our experience with crisis, and my consultation these past two weeks with persons on the ground in Ukraine.
1. Speak with your children about the situation in Ukraine. Children of about six years and older have likely heard rumors about this. Even those who aim to shelter their young ones from most world news might want to share some of these events with their children in that there are Jewish communities there, and because we are already saying Tehillim, raising funds and taking overt action out of concern. Speak with circumspection, avoid catastrophic drama and morbid images, but explain that whereas the Jewish persons in Ukraine are not the direct target of the attack, they are still in a precarious place and we are concerned about them.
2. Find out what your children have heard. Correct any distorted misunderstanding and caution about needless rumoring. Clarify what is happening and verify that Jewish people are living in some of those cities. Explain that many have been evacuated, some to other countries and some to other regions where there is less threat of danger.
3. Hear and monitor their thoughts and feelings. Validate that their reactions to the unknown and the uncertain are normal. Fear, anxiety, sadness, anger… all of those can be common reactions when we learn about people exposed to risk and danger, and in fact, those empathic reactions are often healthy, as well as religiously virtuous. Commend sensitive children for their caring attitude. Allow and encourage them to participate in responsive activities, whether praying, collecting charity under adult supervision, and imparting more caring and considerate behavior towards one another at this time, which is always a zechut (merit) for our nation in times of peril.
4. When they have shared their reactions and you respond with validation, normalization, and reinforcing their ability to share with you at all times, reassure them. They can accept your spiritual words about having faith if they know that you are receptive to their concerns. Assure them that you will keep them up to date about what our religious leaders advise and that you will let them know as more information is forthcoming. Be honest with them and avoid saying things that you cannot vouch for as fact, but do not flood children, particularly younger ones, with facts that are beyond them or unnecessary.
5. Keep family and yourselves in your familiar life rhythms including adherence to customary routine, maintaining a normal schedule, and including structure throughout the day so that there is time for sleep, for waking, for meals, for work and homework, for relaxing, and socializing, for speaking among family members, for all of our religious observances, for good exercise breaks, and for some creative outlets to keep the mind supple and active, rather than stagnant and morose.
We hope and pray for a speedy solution to the travails in Ukraine, for the world in general, and our Jewish brothers and sisters.