We all know that our children rely on us to be a source of strength, security, and safety. As we confront the onslaught of information and media content on the war in Israel, parents, caregivers, and educators face the additional challenge of figuring out how to thoughtfully discuss these events with the children and young adults in their lives, while also giving space to process their own emotions.

For the caregivers of a child with a neurodevelopmental disability or mental health support needs, navigating this topic may feel even more complicated and overwhelming. Below are some tips from Gateways’ experienced special educators and mental health care providers on talking about the war in Israel, tailored for children and young adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities and mental health needs.

The intent is for these tips to lay the groundwork for meeting children where they are in difficult conversations, and we hope that they will also provide a framework to help adults remain present with their children during this challenging time.

1. Maintain as much structure and predictability as possible in daily schedules.

This will provide a much-needed sense of security and safety, especially for kids who thrive on predictable routines.

2. Don’t assume that children aren’t listening or don’t understand conversations happening around them.

Presume competence and remember to limit discussions about the war in their presence that are not developmentally appropriate.

3. Talk about the situation in an age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate way.

Some children feel better when they know more. Others do not. Asking questions such as, “What have you heard?” and “How are you feeling?” is a good place to start. Answer questions briefly and factually to the best of your ability and know that it’s okay not to have all the answers. For non-speaking children, utilize adaptive and alternative communication to give them the chance to engage in these conversations. Follow a child’s lead when they are ready to move on from the conversation.

4. Be aware that children are attuned to the energy of the adults around them.

Even if they don’t understand the full context of conversations about Israel, children will pick up on your mood. As you find a way to process your own emotional response to the ongoing crisis, loop kids in and let them know your feelings aren’t their fault or responsibility. You might say something like, “I’m feeling a little more sad and stressed lately because of what’s happening in Israel. I want to let you know, so you don’t think you did anything wrong.”

5. Acknowledge and validate the feelings of children experiencing anxiety, and then help them to refocus.

You might encourage them to help you take action (see tip #7 for more on this) or engage them in a different activity. If an anxious child engages in “thinking traps” (ways of thinking that increase anxiety, worry, and stress), click here for a great resource on addressing them.

6. Limit media exposure as much as possible.

While this task can be challenging in the digital age, it’s our responsibility as adults to set boundaries to preserve our children’s mental health and ensure that media they access is developmentally appropriate. For teens and young adults, co-view whenever possible to help them process what they are seeing and answer any questions.

7. Include children in taking meaningful action to support Israel.

This can help give them a sense of control amidst all the uncertainty. You might write letters to elected officials or Israeli soldiers or choose an organization together to make a donation to. Here is a resource for Israeli soldier letter-writing, and some examples from our philanthropic youth group for teens, Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches, that show ways to adapt the activity for a range of abilities and developmental levels.

8. Seek professional help when it’s needed.

You know your child and students best and can determine when they need additional support beyond the tools you have. At Gateways, we are always happy to consult and point you in the right direction.

Tali Cohen Carrus, senior director of programs at Gateways, is passionate about inclusive Jewish education and has worked with youth with and without disabilities in a variety of contexts, including schools, synagogues and summer camps. She has worked extensively as a disability inclusion consultant, partnering with Jewish organizations to improve their capacity to support and meaningfully include all members of the community. Tali holds an M.S.Ed in general and special education from Bank Street Graduate School and is a certified DIR/Floortime play therapist. In addition, she received a certificate in advanced Jewish studies/day school education from the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators and is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholarship.

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