Dear Therapist:

Could you please share advice on dealing with younger children who are struggling with the news from Eretz Yisroel. Of course, we are preventing them from seeing any images, but they have inevitably heard some of the horrible details, particularly about kidnapped children r'l. Any advice you can have to help them deal with this terrible situation more effectively would be helpful. 



I think that I speak for pretty much everyone when I say that the recent horrors and tragedies in Israel have affected us all. We have all felt disgusted, horrified, enraged, overwhelmed, sad, and myriad other emotions. Naturally, those of us with young children may be concerned with their emotional response to these ongoing events. We all want to appropriately protect our children. The key word here is “appropriately.”

The answer to your question, of course, is: “It depends.” Every child—indeed every adult—deals with things differently. Think of the way in which you deal with tragedy and fear. Think now of some of the other people in your life, and you’ll find that each one has their own individualized way of emotionally responding to the same events.

Likewise, kids are all individuals, regardless of age. Although there may be some relatively universal similarities among children, responses to traumatic events can vary greatly. In fact, even the term “traumatic events” is very subjective. Some people (whether children or adults) can be heavily traumatized by something that is essentially dismissed by others.

Certainly, kids who appear to dismiss the issue may be avoiding their feelings in one way or another. This can point to a pattern of avoidance that can cause them to have problems later in life. However, to be clear, all kids—and adults—use emotional defenses to deal with feelings that their unconscious minds deem too difficult to face. Therefore, this is a normal reaction.

However, when a child experiences a particularly traumatic event—traumatic to the child that is—their defenses can go into overdrive, causing them to avoid emotions more strongly than usual. This means that they are not properly dealing with their fears, typically causing these to both intensify and spread to similar (and eventually even dissimilar) areas. (This also can contribute to the general overuse of defense mechanisms.)

To at least some extent, parents inadvertently teach their children which defense mechanisms to use and how to use them. As in many areas, our behavior serves as modelling for our children. They learn from us how to deal with problems and issues.

We also teach our children what they should be afraid of. On a simple level, we show them the dangers of touching a hot stove or of running into the street. On a deeper level, we teach them which events should make them feel afraid. In the face of something that we view as traumatic for children, avoiding the subject can actually cause anxiety. Doing so can give the child the message that this should be traumatizing. Of course, there are other factors that can do this as well (media, others’ reactions, etc.). However, the reactions of a child’s parents are likely to be the most significant factor. Additionally, avoidance can increase any anxiety that is felt by the child. Not knowing what to be afraid of can be significantly more anxiety-provoking than understanding the situation and feeling emotions appropriate to it. Discussing the events with children on their level, and with an eye toward their reactions and temperament is typically a better option than simply trying to protect them from their emotions.

Since the general discussion of how to protect children as it relates to traumatic events has been previously discussed, these last few paragraphs of my response are basically excerpted from past columns.

There is often a fine line between appropriately protecting our children and being overprotective.  The obvious advantage to erring on the side of caution seems clear in the short term. When we strive to protect our kids from difficulty, they appear to be safer and less distressed. In their younger years, they can seem more content. As kids grow older, however, they not only require less protection, but can be harmed by too much.                                                                                                             

Over the last generation or so, we seem to have become more overprotective as parents. Of course, decisions should be made based on factors like a child’s age and maturity and the level of danger. The advantages of becoming self-sufficient and of developing positive coping skills need to be weighed against possible consequences. This decision is also based on parenting style and the parent’s level of anxiety in each situation. Regardless, it is important to see the big picture and to recognize that our individual decisions can affect our children more generally in the long run.

Kids need to learn coping skills—both logistical and emotional—in order to become well-adjusted adults.  Overprotection can decrease their ability to develop these skills. When this occurs, kids will often begin demanding continuous protection due to their inability to deal with problems—whether emotional or otherwise. This often becomes a cycle in which both parents and children become used to this protective relationship. They either do not recognize its problematic nature or can’t figure out how to change it.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that exposure to scary situations is important to a child’s emotional development. Certainly there are kids who may have negative reactions, like nightmares and fears, associated with such experiences. Depending on particular children’s personalities and coping skills, different approaches may be required.

For children who do react in a negative fashion, the question becomes whether they should be continuously protected or slowly introduced to uncomfortable situations. As with most anxiety, the former approach generally strengthens the fear, leading to further avoidance (by the parents, and in later years by the child). The latter approach, if done appropriately, can help children to become less anxious with regard to the specific instance—and can aid them in developing better general coping skills.

I can’t tell you what your kids should be exposed to; this is something that you can decide based on likely long-term consequences. As the parent, you are in a better position than anyone else to identify your children’s needs, and to properly base your decisions on their individual characteristics. The hardest part is often our emotional involvement in the situation, whether due to fear for our children or our own fears and triggers. Stepping back and thinking objectively can help us to see the situation more clearly. Maintaining focus on long-term goals can help us to view our short-term anxieties more realistically.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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