Rabbi Ross. With all the anti-Semitic incidents occurring all around us, our children ages 5,8 and 12 are becoming very apprehensive. My husband and I have noticed some odd changes in their personalities, and we are worried that they are going to start having panic attacks. At what point do we get them professional help, or is this normal? Should we tell them everything is fine, or should we let them understand that there are bad people out there. We’re both trying to stay calm about this. Please help us understand our kids. Thank you very much. Shayna and Max.
I recall answering a similar question a few years ago, but I certainly agree that we need to address some newer issues. This reply assumes that your child does not personally know any of the victims. In the event of a personal tragedy, Chas V’Shalom, you should speak to a licensed therapist immediately.
I know we believe that our children understand everything, but the fact is they don’t have the same grasp of these situations as us. In most cases, they don’t give this information a second thought, and only get nervous if their parents are nervous.
On the flip side, the graphic images and practically instant online access of current events certainly make things more challenging. Whether we like it or not, our kids are definitely being exposed to far more traumatic experiences and images than we ever were, and we do need to be careful. With the increase in anti-Semitic attacks, Jewish children all over the world are feeling the stress.
Additionally, even if you minimize your child’s access, he will most definitely hear about these things from a child whose parents are more open. We even have drills in most schools to be vigilant. There are active shooter drills, bomb drills, and kidnapping drills. Your child is instructed to hide in corners and stay low. This can also have an effect on your child’s mental health, and he can start developing anxiety as a result. After any event, for example the recent attack in Monsey, there is increased awareness everywhere. While this is a smart move, it’s still another point of stress for a child.
It seems from your e-mail that you are both somewhat stressed also. I can assure you that if you’re both worried, I’m sure therefore, your children are worried as well. It seems that you should both (parents) speak to a therapist who can properly guide both of you. After speaking to this therapist, he or she will advise you regarding you children.
In general, when discussing serious events with children, I suggest reading the tips below. Some may work better than others.
1) I always recommend the “tag team” method of talking. One parent speaks to the child while the other sits in the room, seemingly preoccupied. If the parent who’s talking needs help, the other one can take over. Having two adults talk to one child about something simultaneously makes it seem very serious.
2) Ignoring questions is not a good idea. They won’t forget, and it can literally come back to haunt them.
Tell the truth but omit any details that are not age appropriate. Using words like “death”, “kill”, “murder”, etc., is not advisable
3) Always reassure your children that they are safe and protected.
4) Children can be very different. Some might ask you for information or details, while others may not care. As a result, these conversations might be better off with one child at a time.
5) After a traumatic event, it can take a while for a child to return to normal. If you feel that your child is fixating on a negative event, don’t dismiss it. There are plenty of qualified mental health specialists that can help nip these issues in the bud. Waiting for the issue to resolve itself isn’t a good idea.
6) If your child doesn’t seem to have any negative reactions to a traumatic event, you don’t need to get nervous. There are some kids that are either too immature to care or are very easygoing.
7) If you notice any mood changes in your child and he/she is developing odd fears (school, bedtime, public places), contact a mental health professional.
8) If your child is constantly coming home with disturbing information, find out the source and contact the parents. It always worries me when a child is sharing scary information all the time, and his parents should be made aware.
9) One of the best ways to fight violence and hate, is love. These days, more than ever, you need to remind your kids constantly how much you love them. They might say, “I know you love me”, but it is always worth repeating.
10) I recently read that a Rebbe told his class “Hashem will always protect you!” While that’s a wonderful thought, it’s a dangerous thing to tell children. Yes, Hashem is always by our side, but if something traumatic does Chas V’Shalom happen, you’ll have some very confused children. A better comment would seem to be, “Hashem loves us, and it’s important that we always Daven for the safety of Klal Yisrael. When Moshiach comes, we won’t have to ever worry about these events.”
Hatzlacha and Good Shabbos!
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.