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How to Talk to Your Child About Traumatic World Events

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A mother is speaking to her son.
The devastation in Gaza may be seen by U.S. children on the Internet or TV, sometimes directly showing other young people in distress. These instances can be difficult to explain to children, who may struggle to comprehend the deaths and political conflicts of the world. KQED’s Brian Watt sat down with Hilit Kletter, a child psychologist at Stanford Medicine, to discuss how parents and caregivers can speak to their children about these complex situations. (The Good Brigade/Getty Images)

Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas forces in Israel. Thousands more Palestinians have been wounded and displaced during Israeli air raids — with strikes destroying 40% of Gaza’s housing, according to the United Nations.

Israel also sealed off Gaza for over a week, halting the entry of food, water, medicine and fuel. Israel recently allowed 20 trucks to enter Palestine carrying aid — a vast reduction from the hundreds of trucks usually entering Palestine daily.

The population in Gaza is among the youngest in the world, with nearly half of the people living there under the age of 18. A 2021 study showed that 91% of children in the Gaza Strip have post-traumatic stress disorder.

With how connected our world is, it is likely your child in the United States has seen the images and videos coming out of Gaza on the Internet or on TV — which sometimes directly show other young people in distress. The devastation can be difficult to explain to children, who may struggle to comprehend the deaths and political conflict.

Hilit Kletter is a child psychologist at Stanford Medicine and the director of the Stress and Resilience Clinic. KQED’s Brian Watt spoke to Kletter about how parents and caregivers can approach these tough conversations with children.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Brian Watt: How is speaking with kids about this violence in Gaza different from talking to children about other types of violence? For example, mass shootings here in the United States?  

Hilit Kletter: It’s not much different. The content and the idea is similar. The only difference might be that, unfortunately, shootings are something that we hear about more commonly here in the States. And war might be a more foreign concept, especially for younger children having a difficult time grasping that the war is not happening here but is happening somewhere far away.

But shootings also seem more random, even if they are somewhat commonplace, unfortunately, in the United States … and to have less context around them than war, for example. Is there any difference there in how kids process that?

Within the U.S., unfortunately, it’s become commonplace because of the frequency and increase of mass shootings that a lot of the schools now have drills for it. Some kids have experienced lockdowns in their school — so they do have awareness.

The concept of war is a little bit more difficult to explain: What that is, and — for especially younger individuals — to grasp the abstract idea behind it of what causes war and “Why are two sides fighting?”

And you cannot explain it in basic terms for really young kids. I might explain it in terms of: “It’s kind of like when you have an argument with a friend, and you might disagree,” but that doesn’t get at the complexity, right? Then, depending on the developmental level, you’re probably going to provide different explanations for kids around it.

So, what are some other ways to begin this dialogue with children? How can parents start thinking about it? 

It’s inevitable that your child may hear something about it, whether at school, through their friends, through other adults talking about it. And a lot of times, we’re not aware when we are adults conversing amongst ourselves that the kids are nearby and pick up on everything. So, I think as a parent, it is important to pre-empt. Because you want to be the one providing the information and not have this be introduced by someone else to your child.

And the way I would begin it is by asking: What do they know, and what have they heard? Because that’s an opportunity to then start the conversation; to gently correct any misperceptions, provide them with information at the appropriate developmental level, and be honest, as much as you can.

We don’t recommend lying to kids or fudging the truth — but tailoring the information according to the age.

We’ve seen rallies in support of Israel and protests condemning Israel’s response in Gaza and the siege. How should parents approach explaining the response here in the United States? 

I think the way you can focus on it is what people are trying to do to help. And regardless of what side you’re on, that people are concerned.

Some may have loved ones or family over there, and people are doing what they can to help. There’s many different ways that they can go about doing that, whether they volunteer to gather supplies to send to the affected individuals or collect donations to provide to different disaster relief organizations. Or they go to rallies to show their support, or just [come] together as a community to be able to express what you do think about it and have a source of support.

Kids will begin to form opinions. Is there a way to talk to them about being sensitive to peers who might be hurt by those opinions?

I think that’s why it’s important to encourage those conversations within the family at first — to allow them to express how they feel and what they think. To also help them practice because kids may not have the ability like adults to filter information. And currently, there’s so much information out there. It’s overwhelming, even as an adult. As adults, we can help kids be able to filter that.

I think there’s two approaches. One is — you can view it as an opportunity for discussion. People often don’t agree — and that’s the beauty of the world, that we can have differing opinions, we can express how we feel. And sometimes that can be an opportunity for discussion and learning and growth.

Other times, when people have very strong opinions, it’s maybe best not to engage and to learn to respect that it’s OK that people will have different opinions. And that you can walk away, and it’s OK to agree to disagree.

What kind of impact can the many graphic images of the war that we are seeing widely shared on social media have on children? 

It can impact their sleep. It can impact their sense of safety: Feeling more afraid, having increased anxiety and just general fears. It can sometimes be portrayed in more disruptive behavior — starting to act out, or having temper tantrums or being more defiant. In older kids, you might see them become more withdrawn or isolated.

[It’s] also important to remember that kids’ brains are still developing … the prefrontal cortex doesn’t stop developing until age 26. That’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for things like our ability to regulate our emotions and our behaviors and to problem-solve.

What is the risk of avoiding this conversation entirely? 

It might send the message for kids that it’s something that they should be afraid of — if the adults are not even able to bring it up, then it must be a really scary thing.

It might [also] inadvertently send a message of: “It’s not OK to express your feelings or to have opinions about this,” and might make kids feel like they’re completely alone. Especially in times like this — when something of this nature that’s on such a horrible level is happening — all of us tend to feel like we’re going through it alone. And if it’s not brought up, if there’s no opportunity for these conversations, then that might reinforce that.

KQED’s Brian Watt and Alexander Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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