How to talk to children about the Israel-Gaza war

Psychologists and parental experts shed light on approaching conversations, using age-appropriate language and being OK with not having all the answers

Unicef suggests parents speak to children about difficult issues in a comfortable setting, such as around the family dinner table, and well before bedtime. Getty Images
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With upsetting news and images from the Israel-Gaza war making headlines, filling social media feeds and rotating across news channels, it's natural for children to ask questions.

How parents answer them – in a world of 24-hour news cycles, information and misinformation – is important. Deciding what language to use, when to approach the subject and how to engage honestly, while protecting them from the very worst aspects of war, can be difficult to navigate.

Here, The National speaks to both parents and parental experts about practical ways to prepare and approach conversations with children.

'We realised she was observing and listening'

“Both of my children have been asking questions from the day it happened,” says Mostafa Hassan, who lives in Dubai and has two daughters aged nine and 14. “Before we had talked to them, my youngest heard my wife and I discussing it all day, but we didn’t realise she was listening. She drew a picture and sent it to us that night, and we realised she was observing and listening.”

Dr Ola Pykhtina, a psychologist and child specialist, explains: “Young adults can understand the complexity [of war and conflict] and will have their opinions. It is important to help them process the information by discussing it.

“They need space to voice their thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes. And we, as parents, need to help them navigate overwhelming information.”

To wait or not to wait

Many parents will be familiar with the conundrum of whether it’s best to raise issues or wait until their child brings them up.

Community educator Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, who has three children, says: “I think families are unsure if they should talk to their children before it is mentioned at school or wait until it is mentioned.

“In your child's class, there may be children who are more closely affected or who have been exposed to more news coverage, and this could mean your child comes home with a different opinion to your own or with information or words that are not from you.”

Ask what they think and how they see it, and then have that conversation based on their understanding of the situation
Dr Ola Pykhtina, psychologist, Thrive Wellbeing Centre

Dr Jeanina Khouri, consultant psychologist and founder of Blue Lights Wellness, adds: “Due to our social media age and exposure online to the news, children can be more prone to seek answers and reassurance and turn to their parents as a first line.

“Some children are quieter, thus it would be beneficial to continue to check in with them if anything is on their mind, being discussed at school or with peers.”

If you are still not sure whether to raise the subject, Dr Pykhtina suggests watching your children play and speak. “Just observing how much they know already and what their ideas are can help make the conversation more context-appropriate for your child,” she says.

In other words, parents who are wary of raising the topic may find it easier to take a more roundabout route by asking their children what they already know about the situation.

What to share and how

“Responding to questions posed by young teenagers needs to be as factual and honest as possible, but vague at first, as you wait for them to ask and even answer each question as it comes,” says Johanna Richmond, a psychologist at CBT Dubai. “Children can have a short attention span, so a brief answer will suffice, but emphasise that what is happening is a very sad way of resolving problems and that talking is much better.”

They may need several conversations to make sense of what, even for us as adults, is hard to make any sense of
Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, community educator

Dr Pykhtina adds: “When it comes to young adults, observe their emotional reactions to the news and their communication with friends. Ask what they think and how they see it, and then have that conversation based on their initial understanding of the situation.”

In this way, parents can gauge the extent of their child’s knowledge and provide an opening for continued discussion. They can also listen, assuage fears and correct any misinformation or misinterpretation.

Unicef suggests parents remain mindful of the times at which they raise discussion points, with a comfortable setting such as a family dinner preferable to just before bedtime.

Sherrington-Boyd says. “They may need several conversations to make sense of what, even for us as adults, is hard to make any sense of.”

Using age-appropriate language

While experts agree that children and young adults have a right to learn what’s going on in the world around them, it’s up to parents to ensure information is age-appropriate.

When discussing conflict, parents should try not to use labels such as “bad people” or “good people” as a way of avoiding creating prejudice. They should remind them that countries are made up of different people and that a nation’s leadership does not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the population.

Focus on kindness and compassion
Dr Jeanina Khouri, consultant psychologist and founder, Blue Lights Wellness

“Be open and transparent with children from a young age,” says Mandeep Jassal, a behavioural therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “However, be mindful to prevent scaremongering by the language used to prevent triggering possible anxiety.”

Hassan, who is an Arab married to an American, uses history as the base for discussions and stresses to his daughters that the news is only a discussion point “to learn more”.

“Our youngest was upset because there were so many kids killed and continued to ask why,” he adds. “We told her that sometimes grown-ups do dumb things and it gets harder and harder to make them right.

“With our oldest, it’s been debates on the why and how and pushing her to educate herself by reading articles, looking at the geography and knowing the history over the decades. We have daily conversations on the same. And it is a topic in the school, so educating with facts and not opinion is critical and appropriate for their age.”

Messages of kindness and peace

Steering the conversation to focus on feelings, as well as kindness and human resilience, can counter a child’s feelings of anxiety or helplessness.

Parents can discuss the roles of humanitarian efforts and charitable causes. They can also point out stories concerning acts of cross-cultural kindness and collaboration, as well as discussions about the roles of those who are trying to mediate, as opposed to focusing on the aggressors.

Remembering our own safety and sharing thoughts and possible prayers dependent on faith can also be something children can do
Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, community educator

“Name your feelings and reassure children that many people are looking for a solution,” says Dr Pykhtina. “You may say something like: ‘I feel worried because people get hurt, but I know everyone is working very hard to find a way out and make things better.’

“You can also take this as an opportunity to teach your child the concept of peace and a peaceful world where people of different nationalities and belief systems live together in a safe world.”

Dr Jeanina adds: “Focus on kindness and compassion. If your child wants to help, this could be something to look into together, such as local registered charities in the UAE who need support through donations of clothes, healthcare items and even toys they are willing to donate.”

Accept that some things are out of our control

A parent's instinct is to shield children from negativity and bad news as a way of protecting them. While this will work for young children, those who are older or young adults, will be exposed to news and information that cannot always be filtered out.

“There is hardly any way to prepare children for the fact that there are going to be things happening out of their control,” says Dr Pykhtina. “On the contrary, they need from us as much certainty and safety as we can provide. What could be done, though, is to build their resilience in the face of uncertainty.”

Feelings around loss of control, not only in their immediate environment, but also their place in the world, can lead to increased feelings of anxiety.

“Focus on their strengths and encourage problem-solving skills,” says Pykhtina. “Model how to cope with emotions and never, ever giving up in any situation, no matter how difficult and hopeless it could seem. We need to teach children with our own examples that the human spirit, determination and unity can change any circumstances.”

Sherrington-Boyd adds: “Gratitude is an action we can take as a family at times like these. Remembering our own safety and sharing thoughts and possible prayers dependent on faith can also be something children can do.”

Dr Jeanina says there are no straightforward solutions to prepare a child other than being available for them, listening and observing changes in behaviour. “Remind them that as parents, you are there to nurture, love and keep them safe,” she adds. “And parents themselves need to keep in mind that they are not expected to have all the answers.”

Updated: October 23, 2023, 8:20 AM