How to talk to children about the war in Israel

A psychologist shares tips for how to talk to kids about the war in Israel.

ByKatie Kindelan via GMA ABCNews logo
Thursday, October 12, 2023
What you should know about talking to your children about the war in Israel
The Mornings @ 10 team was joined by Dr. John Whyte to discuss how to talk about the war in Israel with children.

As the conflict in Israel continues to escalate, several Jewish schools and community groups in the United States are advising parents and caregivers to limit kids' social media use.

Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City, home of the Jackson Religious School, sent an email to its elementary, middle and high school families Tuesday, writing, in part, "Please make every effort to limit and monitor the use of social media. I know this is a tall task, and not one person's responsibility. However, the stuff coming out is horrific and all we can do is our part in trying to keep our children safe."

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Seth Golob, the school's director, told "Good Morning America" that families have also been made aware of resources available to them and tips to help kids process the conflict in Israel, where on Saturday, the militant group Hamas launched an attack, firing thousands of rockets toward Israel and sending an estimated 1,000 Hamas fighters into the country from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

"We decided to send the communication to families to show that we, their Jewish community, are their support during this unprecedented time. We are all in this together," Golob said. "Our team at Sutton Place Synagogue are resources to all families to help process and cope, and most importantly be their Jewish home where they can find Jewish joy."

As the conflict in Israel has continued to grow, more and more of the devastation is being shown on social media, from news outlets to individual accounts. The hashtag #Israel has more than 25 billion views on TikTok and more than 18 million posts on Instagram.

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At least 1,200 people have died and 2,900 others have been injured in Israel since Saturday, Israeli authorities said. According to Palestinian authorities, at least 1,100 people have died and another 5,339 have been injured in Gaza, a 140-square-mile territory against which the Israel Defense Forces has launched retaliatory airstrikes.

In New Jersey, the head of school at Golda Och Academy joined several other schools in sending out a message to families Tuesday recommending that parents remove social media apps from their kids' devices.

"Together with other Jewish day schools, we are warning parents to disable social media apps such as Instagram, X, and Tiktok from their children's phones," Rabbi Daniel Nevins wrote in an email to families shared with "GMA." "Graphic and often misleading information is flowing freely, augmenting the fears of our students ... Parents should discuss the dangers of these platforms and ask their children on a daily basis about what they are seeing."

The executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey also confirmed the organization sent an email to families echoing a similar call to delete or closely monitor kids' social media activities.

Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY and the Jewish Student Union, a network of around 300 after-school Jewish culture clubs in public high schools in the U.S. and Canada, said while social media has helped some young people connect with each other in the wake of the conflict in Israel, it has also been a place of hate and threats for Jewish people, including kids, as the conflict has escalated.

"One of the ways we're trying to support them is by providing a sense that everybody processes differently and all reactions are normal, from wanting to lean into social media usage to wanting to disconnect entirely from social media usage to wanting to do something practical to wanting to just introspect," Greenland told "GMA." "All of those reactions are normal and we're seeing the range of those reactions."

Greenland said his organization is helping young people process the devastation of what's happening in Israel through a saying known as "head, hearts and hands."

"We're giving teens a way to try to process intellectually what's happened, heart is processing emotionally what's happened, and then, practically, what's something I can do," he said, noting the last step of helping others has for teens in the JSU included praying for soldiers in harm's way, writing letters to victims' families and raising money.

How to talk with kids about the conflict in Israel

Dave Anderson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, said it's up to each parent and caregiver to decide how much or how little they want to expose their child to what's happening in Israel.

Anderson said that parents should make that decision with the knowledge that in today's world of social media and 24/7 news coverage, most kids are likely to hear about the conflict in some way.

"Parents and caregivers are the most trusted figures from whom [children] can get information," Anderson told "GMA." "So, what we say to caregivers is, 'First and foremost, think about the level of control you want to exercise.'"

For kids ages 10 and under, that level of control can be high because parents are more capable of limiting the exposure kids of that age have to coverage of the conflict, according to Anderson.

He said that for kids over age 10, and especially teenagers, it's important for parents and caregivers to talk with them about how to be "critical consumers of information."

"It's saying to teenagers, 'Look, we know that this can be really stressful imagery for you to see. I know I can't fully control what you might find online. If I asked you to sign off on social media, you might still see something on [TV] or on an internet website that you go to, or on YouTube, so I want you to think about the fact that it's this balance of maybe you want to be informed about the events of the world, and at the same time to really think about your own psychological health in how much of this you're exposing yourself to or reading about,'" Anderson said.

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Anderson said he also recommends that when parents talk to kids about current events like the war in Israel, they present the facts and then listen to the questions their kids ask.

In his case, as a father to a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old, Anderson said he told his kids that there was an attack by a terrorist organization in a country across the world, and that there is now a major conflict between the terrorist organization and the country that was attacked. Then he reassured his kids that they are safe and waited to see if they had any questions, like if they knew anyone in the conflict, for example.

"Kids do better when they're not in the dark and they do better when they hear a brief snippet of information from their parents so that they're not confused," Anderson explained. "The thing we think about with young kids is if they hear something from a classmate at school, or someone mentions that there's a terrorist attack or that people have been killed or people have been kidnapped, that can make them really feel nervous that could be near them or that could happen to them."

Two other important steps parents can take to help kids process what is happening, according to Anderson, are to maintain a normal routine of school and activities, and to be good role models when it comes to how they process and protect themselves from the news.

One example is to talk to kids out loud about a decision you made to stop watching the news or to stop scrolling on social media in order to protect your mental health, according to Anderson. Another example is to be mindful of how the news is impacting your patience and stress level.

"Be mindful of your indirect reactions," Anderson said. "People think about having direct conversations and perhaps are not checking in with themselves about how much things like this might increase their stress, or their irritability, or their frustration and tolerance with other situations."