This week I’m really struggling. My family is from Israel, and it feels extremely difficult to find the time to process what’s happening as a person, and especially as a parent. On top of this overwhelming feeling of sadness, stress, and helplessness, my husband and I are trying to figure out how to explain to our children why we’re sad and what’s going on in Israel while also being their emotional center, and their pillar of strength. I feel extremely grateful to be able to tuck my healthy, beautiful children in at night. And yet I find myself distracted and sneaking away to read the news. I’m walking around with a very, very dark cloud over my head while trying to be a present and happy mother. And from what I understand, I’m not alone.
When Tablet announced that I’d be hosting a Zoom conversation with Dr. Esther Altmann about how parents outside Israel can talk to their kids about what’s happening in Israel right now, more than 500 people from all over the world registered in a matter of hours. Altmann is a clinical psychologist in private practice who works with adolescents, young adults, older adults, and couples. She’s the director of pastoral education at Yeshivat Maharat Rabbinical School. She joined us for an hour on Wednesday night to help parents navigate this week’s events, and figure out how to talk about them with their kids.
We learned about different coping mechanisms and strategies to use. We learned that in order to be emotionally available for our children, we have to learn how to calm ourselves. We learned to trust our own instincts, as the experts for our own individual children. We discussed our fears, and most importantly, our hopes for the future. We were happy to not feel alone, and were thankful to have a place to be in conversation about how difficult our jobs as parents feel right now.
Below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Some of us are parents. We are adults. And we carry an enormous mental load, often feeling exhausted and depleted by the end of each day and taking care of other people and ourselves. How can we as parents help our kids process this when we haven’t necessarily had the time, space, or capacity to process it for ourselves right now?
Altmann: I have the greatest empathy for people who are caring for children and young children right now. My children are in the post-college young adulthood stage, and I can say that I really do not think that when I was raising my children, when they were going through lower school and middle school and high school, the external world was as distressed and conflicted and worrisome as it is today. There is a qualitative shift that we’re all reacting to, and we need to start there. I don’t need to go through the long list of things that are on our minds like climate change and gun violence and the war in Ukraine. And we’re just coming out of the post-COVID years with all of its mental health and physical health sequelae. So there’s all of that. But even in a much smaller way, I was mindful to give you one little example of some of what was happening, just going to synagogue on the High Holidays where already we were told that there’s going to be extra security. Even that elevates and escalates our nervous system as adults. And so we are in that environment. I don’t know about you, but I wake up in the morning, I have my cup of coffee and I say, do I want to read the news or do I want to do Spelling Bee? What way do I want to distract and manage my emotional experience before I let in what is going on in the outside world? That was our baseline that was happening before Saturday, before the war in Israel. I want to acknowledge that that’s the external world. We each have our own health challenges or crises or things going on in our immediate families, in particular nuclear families that are stressful and difficult to manage on a day-to-day. So we have the external world, we have our own nuclear families and extended families that we’re worrying about on any given day. And then Saturday happened.
One of my first thoughts was I cannot take in the fact that something else terrible, frightening and terrifying is now going on in the world. I think as parents, as adults, we have to regulate or—I noticed I just put my hand on my heart, which I did actually intuitively, I did not do that very consciously. But how do we slow down our heart rates? How do we regulate ourselves? I know parents are going to want to know about social media and their kids. But I have found myself talking with my very adult, very smart, very successful patients over the last few days about their own social media use and about the fact that their brains, our brains, can only take in a certain amount of distressing information and certainly visual information. So those visual images of people getting pulled and young people getting kidnapped. Those are things that if we were seeing them over and over again, and we’re seeing multiple ones of them, our brains are going to go into a freeze, our sympathetic systems are going to go into an overdrive, and then our system needs to metabolize traumatic images and that takes energy and effort. We don’t even know that that’s going on, but it is actually going on in us and it shrinks our capacity to be available interpersonally, both to people we may want to be reaching out to in Israel and most importantly, to our children. So I think our very first step is to monitor our own social media usage.
What a lot of us are struggling with is a lot of people saying to really delete or monitor social media. Why are we glued to the news? We do want to know what’s happening and we do want to also share what’s happening to help others understand the extent of this, but also, respect what you’re saying, regulate our own systems and be available for our children. What’s the right balance there? I don’t think a lot of people want to turn it off completely because they want to be tuned in to the unfolding. But how can we manage those two desires?
Each person needs to figure it out for themselves—there’s work, there’s parenting, there is getting the groceries, and there’s staying on top of what’s going on in Israel. Any time there is tragedy or war that’s close to us, we want to be more immersed in it. When it comes to Israel in particular for some of us—not for all of us but for those of us who may be Israelis who are living here in America and have left or have very close family there or feel that they should have made aliyah and didn’t or have this kind of very wedded, identified connection to Israel— there’s a fantasy that if we listen to the news, it’s almost like being there. It’s almost like we are identifying with the feelings and experiences of the Israelis who we care about and love. And somehow that is being with them. I understand that need completely. And sometimes some of us may feel guilty. There they are. We’re here. We’re not worried about our life in the same way. And that can be really hard. For some of us, not for all of us, we feel guilty. They’re there and we’re here. That doesn’t seem quite right. So that’s one thing that maybe influences how much we’re on the news. There’s almost magical thinking if we can continue to monitor what’s going on, it gives us some imagined sense also of control. And the idea that we really don’t have any control, no matter how much we watch the news of what is actually going to unfold, that is another source of anxiety and pain.
We will talk more about social media, but what I want to focus on now is the coping strategies and the coping mechanisms. And how do we help our kids cope and how do we cope?
Parents, you know your children very well. When I work with parents, I pay very close attention to what parents tell me about their children. You are experts in your children and you can take advice or recommendations from the schools or things that you might be reading. And I think it’s very important for you to filter it into what you know about your child and modify accordingly. Children have different coping strategies. I’m going to talk about four different kinds of coping strategies. Of course, it’s not that neat. As I go through them, they may capture what you know about your child or how you understand how your child copes with difficult or challenging information in the world.
I’m going to start with the catastrophizers. These are children who like to collect a lot of detailed information. They may be asking you a lot of questions about what is going on in Israel. And no matter what you say to them, they’re going to ask another question and another question. And sometimes I think we think when children have this style, that the more we answer, at some point they’re going to say, OK, and that’s going to help them. But with children like this, what often happens is the more questions they ask, the more information we give them, the more they escalate up, the more anxious they get, and then the more questions they ask. So at some point, you have to identify that pattern and realize that you’re not going to continue the dialogue. You’re going to try to contain it. And you really need to shift them either to a soothing activity or to eat dinner or sometimes you actually have to say, I think we’ve talked about this enough, now let’s figure out what else we can do or what else we should talk about. You actually have to be very specific with them. So that’s one kind of coping mechanism.
Other children are called sensitizers, and children who are sensitizers are going to ask for some information. They might want to know some details. And when you answer them, it seems to help them. It seems to contain their interest, their knowledge, their worries, their fears. And after a certain amount of back and forth, they’re going to go, OK, and they can go do their homework. They can go play. They can go do something else. You want to make sure to check back in with them, to see exactly how they’ve taken in the information you’ve shared. You may have had the best intentions. Maybe it was a little too much. Maybe they need to know a little more. Maybe their imaginations are going a little. You want to check in to know what they’re thinking, where did they take it, where did it go? So those might be the way I might interact or parent somebody who is more of sensitizer. Of course, I think we all want to be sensitizers. That seems to be the most adaptive coping strategy.
And as I’m going through these, you may recognize yourself, you may recognize your partner. After over 30 years of being in private practice and working with so many people across the life span, it’s not clear to me why some of us are catastrophizers, and some of us are sensitizers.
The third category is minimizers. These are children who very quickly want to shut down the conversation. They want to minimize the information that they’re taking in because it’s going to arouse their anxiety and uncertainty. And they tend to process information slowly and in small little bits. So if you have a child who is a minimizer, you’re going to say just a couple of things, essential facts that you think they need to know. They’re going to take that in. Then you can come back and then maybe add in some other pieces of information you think that they ought to be knowing about what’s going on in Israel. They can also come back to you when they want more information. And you can take that as a cue that they’re ready to open up and take in more.
And then lastly, the deniers, the children who actively push information out of their minds. They don’t want to think or talk about anything that’s upsetting and that’s their way of protecting themselves.
Again, as I was going through this, you may have said, oh, that’s me or that’s my partner. I do couples therapy. And some people are sensitizers or catastrophizers, and their partner may be a minimizer or a denier. And one person wants to talk and the other person doesn’t want to talk. That can also be a source of tension. It’s helpful to know, even as a parent, where you might fit in in terms of your own coping strategies, where your child fits in and also where your partner, if you have a partner, where your partner fits in, too, because that’s also going to be going on in the dynamic of your family. It’s not only parent to child, but if you’re partnered, it’s partner to partner as well. It’s all in the mix.
To build on that, we’re all craving a way to make it make sense for ourselves. To explain this in a way to our children that not only makes them feel safe as people, but to reassure their sense of Jewish pride. And if they don’t identify as Jewish, to help them understand what their Jewish friends are going through. And for most people, really doesn’t make Israel feel like a scary word or scary place, especially if they have family there or if they’ve been there, they will go there again. How do we do that in a way that tries to keep that sense of pride and sympathy?
Depending on what your children know about Israel, you certainly want to start there. If they’ve been to Israel, one of the things I might ask them is what did they remember about their trip to Israel, for example, to talk about positive experiences? If they were fortunate enough to have spent some time there, what do you remember about Israel that you really loved? What was the best thing that we did when we went? So for those people who have had opportunities to be in Israel, that might be a good place to start.
I want to offer a framing by Jonathan Goldin at the Hartman Institute that I thought was helpful that we could employ with our children of all ages in terms of their relationship to Israel. He talks about head, heart, and hands. We want to ask our kids, what do you understand about Israel? What is Israel? Depending on the age of your child, when did Israel come into existence? Some historical facts. What’s your understanding? Who lives in Israel? There are many different kinds of people who live in Israel. If your child doesn’t know so much, you can just talk about Israel as a country, the people of Israel, and how it came into being. So that’s our head. That’s knowledge, which I think is useful.
Our hearts are: What do we feel about Israel and why do we care about it? And who do we care for in Israel? Who are the people that we meet? Is there a friend that we went to school with who was from Israel who then went back to Israel? Are we worried about that person? Can we send an email message to that friend and check in and see how they’re doing? For a child in lower school, that might be a very nice way of connecting to somebody that they know. Can you send a letter?
And the hand would be thinking about what can we do? How can we help people who are living in Israel and going through this terrible, horrific time? And again we can talk about ages, right? Teenagers can do all kinds of things. In fact, I was listening to a group of women in Israel across the country talking about how in their communities, the teenagers were shopping and baking and babysitting and taking over and basically running the community while parents were away, were called to duty, and the women were doing a million other things. So that the teenagers were running the community in so many different ways. It gave them a great sense of purpose and certainly was helpful in managing their fears. We’re not structured that way. We are going about our daily routines. Our children are in school. We’re trying to do our work, so we’re not going to stop everything. But I definitely think that for children at different ages, asking them and helping to think with them about what they can do, what acts of kindness or charity to help is a very good way of helping them cope with the situation.
I’m not sure if you feel equipped to do this, but do we want to quickly just talk about the three big age groups—preschool, elementary school, and teenagers—and some terms, phrases, and words to use that explain what’s happening?
Well, for preschool kids, I would wonder what other reference points they have. In other words, do they know the word war? And you know that there are wars in different parts of the world. There’s a war in Ukraine. Is that something already in their vocabulary or is the word war not yet in their vocabulary? I know it’s so painful for parents when we have to talk to our children about the tragedies of the world. But we do have to start some time and we do have to talk about these things. So it’s not inappropriate for 4- and 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds to know that there is something about war. And we can talk about the fact that kids in their class fight. And why do kids in their class fight? Sometimes people get angry with each other. Sometimes they’re fighting over a toy. People fight over toys and people fight over land. A war in Israel is a fight over land. And it’s different from fighting over a toy. But it might not be so different on some other level. I’m just thinking out loud with you, but that might be one way to frame it for a preschooler.
I would be careful to be mindful of what they are hearing in school and checking in with their teachers. I’m sure some of the schools are wonderful in keeping parents very informed about what happened in the class and what they talked about and some of the questions that the children had. When you get that information in the school, it’s enormously helpful. And I know some of you are probably in schools where you’re not getting any information, you really don’t know much of anything of what’s going on for your preschool child. But checking in with teachers is always a good idea when you can in terms of elementary school children they know a lot and they see a lot. I would circle back to what I said about who your child is and what is most helpful for them in terms of information in the world. Is it better to talk more about it or is it better to talk less about it? I would certainly be checking in every day. Did this come up? What came up? You want to talk about it? Do you not want to talk about it? How are you feeling? One thing that I think we’ve certainly all experienced is when there’s something really weighing on our hearts that is painful. For example, if somebody in our family is sick or we’ve had a loss, we go out into the world and we feel different. And you feel like, don’t you know that I’m fundamentally changed? I’m buying milk and I’m doing my job and inside I feel like a totally different person. Some of us have had that experience now with Israel. When we go into environments where people are not thinking about this and we’re like, don’t you understand? There’s tragedy and crisis in Israel and this is the only thing I can be thinking about. But for the other person, it’s just how are you today? For some of our kids and some of their school environments, they may be feeling like that. So it’s particularly important to create opportunities, environments for them to share, share in the conversation in whatever your Jewish communal affiliation might be. Maybe this is the time you really want to put together a Friday night dinner for your children and invite a couple of other families and feel like this is a place and a space where people can share what it’s been like for them, middle schoolers and high schoolers. It’s such a huge conversation.
With some of our kids, particularly in school age kids and middle schoolers, there is often a discrepancy between their cognitive development and their emotional development. And again, you as parents are attuned to this. They may be so intellectually sophisticated in terms of the information they’re taking in and what they know. But their emotional capacity to manage that information may be much more limited. That is where you as a parent can really be in dialogue with them and try and help them manage their emotional experience. There are these developmental discrepancies across different capacities that children have. And it can often be asynchronous, which is something to be mindful of.
In just a few days since this started, Jewish spaces are already feeling and looking different, there’s extra security, there are police cars outside schools. People are talking about different things. We’re just a few days into this, but how do we explain that? How do we make sure people understand that we’re trying to be as safe as possible here, even though something is happening far away? People in the messages are conveying that there are real threats to our communities here in America. And so that’s a whole other conversation. And I’m curious how we approach that.
Full disclosure, I’m the child of a Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz survivor who lost everyone and was devastated by the time he was 18. I’m sharing that information because, yes, what does it mean to be Jewish in the world and to be vulnerable? And we always want to push off that conversation with our kids. When do you introduce the Holocaust? When do you talk about the idea that people hate Jews? There is no good explanation for it, right? If you have an older child, you can ask them what their understanding is of that and why. We don’t have good explanations for evil in the world and hatred in the world. I will leave that to the philosophers and the theologians, we can’t answer that question for our kids. We can listen to what they are thinking and asking. So if there’s security in front of the school that wasn’t there before, I would do my best to try and reassure. I would say the security is there to help everyone stay safe. The truth of the matter is, to the best of my understanding, kids have lockdown procedures [in school] in case there is gun violence. So on the one hand we feel that we are particularly victimized as Jews, and it’s very painful and very hard, in each generation. Like can’t there be a generation where you don’t have to grapple with antisemitism? Can’t there be a generation where Israelis don’t have to go to war? You know, it brings tears for many of us I know have been weeping. And again, we go back to monitoring ourselves. But I think what’s really important is to know that this is in the context of many other difficult things that our children are facing. So be really calm about it. There’s the police car there because sometimes it feels like places need extra protection and the police car is there to just look out for you. And I would be, as a matter of fact, as possible to go back to the coping style. If your child is a catastrophizer, that child may ask you more questions. The child who is a minimizer may not even notice. Some kids notice everything and some kids notice nothing. So for the kid who notices very little, you certainly don’t want to call attention to the police.
There is a big difference between those who pick up on something and hear something and come to us. What we’re seeing here is a lot of people’s children know nothing, and it’s up to us to start the conversation. We know the different coping strategies in different age groups. Are there one or two things that you would suggest starting the conversation with? Is there anything that you would recommend doing to open it up in a way that again, makes children feel safe sharing as well?
I would use the word war in Israel. There is a war in Israel right now again. I would not say that to toddlers. But if you think your kids are going to be hearing things on TV, it’s a reminder also to be mindful of when your TV is on and the kids are running around and what they may be saying. I’m sure most parents are aware, but I’m reminding them. But you can say there are wars, when countries fight and people fight and people are injured and hurt and there is a war in Israel and we are worried and concerned. And if you notice that I’m upset or sad today, it’s because there’s a war in Israel and it’s really on my mind and then see what the child says or asks or does with that information. I think that’s a reasonable way to start and then see what your child wants to know.
The other question that some people have is about the children who do tend toward anxious behavior. Is there any anything you want to briefly share about what to or what not to say to children who are in that realm?
I think I want to shift the conversation a little bit. I’m hearing a lot of: What should I say? Maybe you’re going to be annoyed with me, but I’m going to tell parents who are asking those questions, check in with yourself and trust yourself. You will figure out what to say. You don’t need me as the expert to tell you exactly what sentences to use. I want you to feel like you have the capacity to figure that out for yourselves. But what I would say to you is pay attention to your children’s behaviors. Some children are somaticizers. Are you hearing about stomach aches? Is their sleep disrupted? If they were toilet trained, are they having more accidents? I would start to pay attention to those behaviors. Are they fighting or are they grouchy or are they coming into your bed? Are there signs of stress or distress that they’re manifesting? This is sadly, probably, going to be a long haul. And then you need to be sensitive to the fact that they may be having a regression in their toilet training and they may be more difficult or obstinate or whatever it is. They’re driving you crazy in whatever style they find to make parenting challenging. There may be something on their minds. They’re picking up on the fact that something bad is going on or if you have a close relative in Israel they may really be worried about their grandparents or their cousin, whoever might be there. And are they safe and are they OK, trying to actually put somebody on the phone or have a conversation or Zoom, depending on the situation of your family member in Israel. These are all things that could be helpful for your child. Try and check in with what their fantasy is. Children have such unbelievably creative imaginations and we never know what they’re actually imagining. And so having a reality check to be able to check in with what they’re imagining, I think is really important and helpful.
There was a statement made or put out today by many different schools and communities to anticipate what images might be coming out of what Hamas might be releasing and what gruesome images might be released, basically a call for parents to strictly either monitor their news and their children’s news intake/social media use or cut it off. And that can bring up a lot of loss of power for kids. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how to handle that.
I saw these things flash across my screen in the middle of my day and I thought, oh my goodness, how are parents possibly going to do this? It creates an enormous pressure. I don’t currently have teenagers. I don’t know how you quite control your teenagers’ social media use. Certainly you want to be speaking to them. You do want to get advice on how to shut down their social media. You want to be clear with them that this isn’t a battle over their autonomy, their independence. And one way I might be inclined, I’m talking specifically about teenagers, is to tell them that you are not going to be watching these images. You are containing your social media because you understand that these images are traumatizing and not healthy. We want our kids to be able to take the trauma of this experience in Israel and be connected to other people. To be in conversation. And if their brains freeze because these images are going to be seen over and over again, there’s a fantasy that if we continue to see an image, the kids think they’re going to be able to manage it better. In other words, it’s almost exposure therapy for a phobia. But we don’t really want either ourselves or our kids to be deadened by these horrific images. You can say to your teenager, I’m not doing this. If you’re going to take control away, then I’m doing this for this very particular reason. I’m hoping this is a very short-term. I really encourage check-ins with your parent buddies. How are they doing it? What are they doing? And for parents of teenagers, one thing that’s really important. Don’t rely on your kids to say, well, so-and-so’s parent is not shutting down their media. So why are you shutting down mine if so-and-so’s parent is letting them go to the party. Why can’t I go to the party? Or if his curfew is 2 a.m., why is mine midnight? It’s really helpful to be checking in with other parents, get support from other parents about how to do this. So, yes, please control those images for your kids, for yourself, to not see them.
Also I just want to take a step back and think about how it’s another kind of terror to be putting that out into the world. And we don’t want to be colluding with that. That’s another way to think about it. And then the other part of this and maybe this is something I think middle schoolers and high schools will appreciate. There’s something about human dignity. This is a Jewish value. There might be an opportunity here to talk with older children, about how we deal with the ritual of death and mourning and bodies. We show great honor to our bodies when we die. There’s a chevra kadisha. We watch over them, we cleanse them, we bury them, we put earth on them, we honor them. These are images that are dishonoring. And it’s not a Jewish value to watch them. And that might help them feel like, oh it’s more respectful not to be seeing these images.
Someone asked why we can’t forgive the terrorists.
The phrase that comes to mind is there’s a time for everything. There’s a time for healing, there’s a time for forgiveness. And I’m wondering about the teenager asking that question now. I would wonder about, is it hard to feel anger or is it hard to feel fear? Is there a way in which moving quickly to forgiveness is skipping over very painful feelings that are hard to hold? And I would talk about needing time for forgiveness. For example, we can look at how Germany has dealt with the Holocaust. It’s actually a beautiful example of moving through stages of reconciliation and forgiveness over time. Right now, we are too in the experience to be talking about forgiveness. And for that particular child asking that question, that may be how they’re coping with it, which is also OK, you want to be sensitive to that. But that’s my thought. I just want to skip over all of this pain and horror and just move on to this later stage, which we’re not quite in yet, sadly.
In that vein, someone’s asking about how we approach talking about Palestinians who don’t identify as Hamas. This is probably for an older age group, but how do we address the innocent civilians and those stories will be coming out soon, in the coming days?
There are good people everywhere. And the world is random. Again, I would defer to the rabbis and the educators and the wise souls. These are questions really beyond my capacity as a psychologist. Why is there evil in the world in which good people get hurt? And the idea of holding the fact that there are truly good people everywhere. I happen to know that the Museum of Jewish Heritage, for those people who were in New York, or are going to be coming to New York anytime soon, is launching the first ever children’s Holocaust exhibit. And it is about the Danish rescuers during the Holocaust. So that’s a wonderful exhibit to go take your kids to, a reminder that in the throes of the Holocaust, the Danes rescued their Jews. There are good people everywhere. And that’s a perfect antidote. It couldn’t have been more timely.
There are really heroic stories coming out where grandfathers came to the rescue of their grandchildren. There are the good people that helped save many people from massacre. Is that something you recommend discussing with kids to show them the positivity and the heroes in this? Is that something that you think is a good framing for children to see that there is good in the world and that there is some hope that’s coming out to look for the helpers?
Yeah, that’s a great phrase. Thank you for that. Yes, of course. Can I circle back to something else around the parenting? For those parents who are worried about what exactly they should say, or how they should say it, I want to remind us that, number one, children are resilient. They’re very resilient. And secondly, there’s the concept of a “good enough parent,” developed by Winnicott, who was a British psychoanalyst. And I’m sure many of you have heard about this concept. We don’t need to be perfect parents. We just need to be good enough parents. I want to remind you about that as I can hear by your questions and just by virtue of being on this Zoom you’re a good parent because you’re on this Zoom and you’re trying to figure out how to best help your kids. I want to encourage you to feel secure in your parenting and to know that you don’t have to get it exactly right.
Thank you. Our discussion earlier just made me really thankful that you’re here. And I know we want to end on hope and resilience. I think you had a great idea to ask of the group and I’ll ask of you how can we help instill hope in our kids when we at this moment may doubt it?
I would also circle back to something you asked me a little earlier about. I would turn to Jewish rituals. Those that you find comforting, and asking your children, or introducing, perhaps is a great opportunity to particularly counteract any sort of negative antisemitic things that may be coming their way. How do we affirm positive Jewish identities and how do Jewish rituals provide us comfort? So I noticed myself, I had an etrog from Sukkot that I love the smell of. It’s Jewish aromatherapy. Smell your etrog if you still have one. This Shabbat, have a beautiful meal, light candles, bake challah. Ask your child what they like to do that they associate with being Jewish. What’s meaningful to them. Give tzedakah, give charity, whatever it might be. I remember when my kids were little and there was the horrific tsunami in 2004 that killed, I think, a quarter-million people. We made a lemonade stand and we raised money. It just felt like doing something active with your child. I think this is an opportune moment.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.