Talk to kids about the Hamas-Israel conflict, experts say, but in an age-appropriate way

Whether scrolling through social media or tuning in to news updates, the Hamas-Israel conflict is everywhere, with the subject likely spilling into our children’s and teens’ worlds.

Adults — parents and educators included — should be ready to answer kids’ questions and support them in processing current events, say media and child psychology experts, who shared advice on tackling these tricky conversations.

Prepare to talk

When a story dominates the news cycle, it’s generally a good idea to be proactive, says digital literacy expert Matthew Johnson, because kids are easily exposed through media or via second-hand tidbits from friends. 

Asking if they’ve heard about the conflict or what they know about it allows adults to clear up misconceptions, said Johnson, director of education for Ottawa-based organization MediaSmarts.

“That also gives you an opportunity to help them deal with any frightening images or stories that they may have encountered, either directly through media — whether it’s seeing it on TV or hearing about it on the radio — [or] whether it’s seeing it in social media, which we know is often a situation where kids are exposed to disturbing content.”

A teacher stands before children seated in a classroom.
If students raise questions in class, educators shouldn’t dismiss the subject. They don’t have to delve too deeply into the issues, but if students are ‘bringing it up, that shows that it’s affecting them emotionally,’ says Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts. (Ben Nelms/Radio-Canada)

If questions pop up in class, educators shouldn’t ignore or dismiss the subject, Johnson added. 

“Teachers shouldn’t feel they need to talk about any potentially disturbing issues when they’re not prepared for it, but we do want to make sure that kids are getting the support and the help that they need,” he said. 

“If they’re bringing it up, that shows that it’s affecting them emotionally.”

While it may feel natural to “bubble wrap” our kids from hard topics, the right move is sometimes the counterintuitive one, said Toronto psychotherapist Liza Finlay. 

“That doesn’t do them any good,” she said. “It doesn’t serve them as future citizens of the world. We need to educate them.” 

Be age-appropriate and honest

Finlay encourages age-appropriate discussion that centres on what kids bring up. Someone speaking with elementary-age children might not need to delve deep into the historical and geopolitical context of the conflict, for instance; instead, they might address any feelings of fear and anxiety that students express. 

Honesty is imperative, she added, no matter if the kids are five or 15.

“Gauge where your child is at and give them enough information that they have knowledge that’s credible, but that isn’t harmful,” Finlay said. 

“We’ve got to make sure we’re a credible source for them and that means telling them the truth.”

Don’t overgeneralize

Finlay believes it is important to separate the populace from actions being taken by decision-makers in the region. 

“We really want to make the distinction between a group that is behaving and doing things that are wrong versus saying that they’re wrongdoers because of the culture that they’re from,” she said. 

Given that Canadian classrooms might well include students with Israeli and Palestinian heritage, “this is a great opportunity for them all to come together and… to say, ‘We’re all hurting right now. I can feel for you and you can feel for me, and we don’t need to judge it or politicize it.'”

A woman is seated on a couch with vibrant pillows and colourful artwork seen behind her.
Liza Finlay, a psychotherapist who works primarily with preteens, teens and young adults, says parents and educators should be age-appropriate but always honest when answering questions. (David Hill/CBC)

Take care with social media

Social media is ubiquitous, but with misinformation and graphic content easily spilling into students’ feeds, caution is warranted. This may mean different approaches, says MediaSmarts’ Johnson.

Some have suggested taking children under 13 off social media. Johnson says adults can block unfettered access by activating content controls or restrictions. Teachers and parents might then try searching to see what kind of content turns up to see what kids could potentially surface.

He suggests teaching older children and teens to control their online experience — examples include how to limit browser searches, activate restricted modes that blur disturbing images, or turn off auto-play in social apps — and to discuss what they encounter.

Women using their phones.
Misinformation and graphic content easily spills into social media feeds, so experts say different approaches are needed for kids of different ages, from blocking social apps for younger kids to teaching teens ways to better control their online experience. (Shutterstock)

“We know that in general, kids are more interested in avoiding disturbing content than in seeing it and, in either case, it’s really vital psychologically that they be the ones in control,” Johnson said. 

“Whether it is in the school or the home context, it’s really important for kids to know that they can seek help if they have seen some of these images and are feeling disturbed or upset as a result.”

An opportunity for critical thinking

Talking about current events with older kids can be a valuable way to build critical thinking, whether it’s an adult guiding kids to examine how different news outlets present the same story or teachng them how to fact-check what’s shared in their social feeds. 

“Before you trust something — before you share it, especially — take those few simple steps to find out whether it’s been verified or debunked,” Johnson said.

“Upsetting content, content that is divisive, content that is polarizing is not necessarily good for us. There’s a lot of evidence that it keeps people on social networks, that those social networks profit by… encouraging us to argue about these issues, to take more extreme positions and to treat other people as opponents rather than people with whom we can have a discussion.”

Give hope 

Finally, experts encourage incorporating a sense of hope and agency. Child psychologist Jillian Roberts recalled the Fred Rogers quote, “Look for the helpers” — regularly shared among a suite of tips for families discussing tragic events with the very young. 

“It’s like helping a child to understand it, but understand it in a way that creates hope,” Victoria-based Roberts said Thursday in an interview on CBC News: Morning

“We want to be very careful that we don’t translate [or] project our own sense of dread or disillusionment onto them.” 

A woman with curly blonde hair and wearing a patterned turquoise blazer smiles in an office setting.
Child psychologist Jillian Roberts says families with young children can turn to the Fred Rogers quote, ‘Look for the helpers.’ ‘It’s like helping a child to understand it, but understand it in a way that creates hope.’ (Joshua Lawrence)

With older kids, “it’s going to be talking to them about the situation, giving them more context,” Johnson said. 

With many Canadians having friends or family in the region, he said, talks may lead to “helping students find out what they can do to help, how they can get involved, how they can learn more and possibly how they can be a part of making things better for the people who are affected.”

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