Tips for tough topics

Guidance for talking to our kids

In Short

The best outcomes of conversations on difficult topics are not resolutions or knowledge, but rather growing confidence and the comfort that we are a safe resource and refuge.

From youth educators to congregational rabbis to C-suite executives at organizations and foundations, many of us are facing hard conversations with the young people closest to us or are anxious about how our charges are processing the tragic events of this past week in Israel. All of the professional training in the world for talking about Israel might feel insufficient when the situation is this fresh, unprecedented and frightening.

We urgently need to support parents, teachers and other communal professionals who work directly with children with resources for speaking with young people about what is going on as the present conflict continues to evolve.

Let’s start with some general principles of difficult conversations.

First, remember that they are always based on developmental stages. Five-year-old children can’t process at a 10-year-old level. Be sure you’re talking to a kid where they are at.

Second, remember that it is your job to support a child, not theirs to support you. They can’t comfort you. Be sure your conversation is about them. You may need support, and you can reach out to obtain it — but reach out to those who hold you. Don’t ask children to serve that purpose for you.

Third (with thanks to Jonathan Golden), remember your conversation can include heart, head or hand, or any combination of the above. Heart is how we feel. Head is what we think and believe. Hand is what we can do. Very often we rush away from “heart” because it’s simply too painful; but feelings matter, and they get in the way if we don’t name them. The response to “I am scared” is not reassurance that there’s nothing to be afraid of. The better response is simple: “Tell me more.” Make space for your children (and you) to feel. Humans feel.

Fourth, remember that conversations with children about challenging subjects, whether they are war or sex or divorce, should be led by children. They let us know how much they can absorb at a time. Create space for their questions, and answer those. Speak in sentences, not paragraphs. They don’t need the history of Israel if they aren’t asking for it. They don’t need your opinions about this government. They need to know that you are a person who will listen to their concerns.

So, how do we talk to our kids?

We begin by naming that something is wrong. You can tell that Ima is sad. Daddy is watching the news a lot. Your teacher was in a bad mood. Do you wonder why? Kids may shut you down immediately, but you have already opened the door to talking. That’s a step.

Toddlers and preschoolers are likely mostly concerned about your feelings. Why is Ima sad? They want reassurance that they are not at fault. They can’t understand that groups of people dislike other groups. Keep the TV off. The visual images are simply too frightening. We are unlikely to be able to protect elementary age kids from the news. Again, keep visuals to a minimum. Try to maintain a normal daily schedule, and ask them if they’ve heard anything about Israel that worries them. Follow their lead. Ask them for their questions. Let them be afraid. Be on the lookout for new experiences of antisemitism.

Older kids are getting information on their own. They have access to the horrifying pictures and videos that are flooding the internet. It is not atypical for people to go down the rabbit hole of more and more exposure. Adults do that as well. How are you helping your family control their social media exposure? How do you and they process what they’re seeing online? Have they watched videos of murders, kidnapping and rape? Can they talk to you about what they’re seeing? Can you listen without judging? We and they are scared and may want to understand more. Remember that if you answer a question with a definitive statement, you may be cutting off space for them to explore what they think.

Go slow. The best and deepest conversations happen over time. Every conversation sets the groundwork for the next one. The goal cannot be to tell them everything they need to hear. The goal is always building relationships. We know that deep relationships are psychologically protective.

The experiences of our children mirror our own. We can tell ourselves that Israel will survive, that Jews have always survived, that Hamas isn’t the first to try to destroy the Jewish people. But we are all holding the horrible fears of destruction. We need to be together in community, in pride, in prayer and in solidarity. Everything we need to say to our children we also need to say to ourselves and to each other. 

The images are horrifying, the fears are primal. There is more to come. The best outcomes of conversations with our kids on difficult topics are not resolutions or knowledge, but rather growing confidence and the comfort that we are a safe resource and refuge. 

The best outcome of this conversation may be just that it opens the door and lays the groundwork for the next one.

Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.