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How to talk to kids about the Israel-Hamas war

Family and clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein shared advice and sample questions to ask your children.
/ Source: TODAY

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, many parents are navigating difficult conversations with their children.

On Oct. 16, family clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein shared advice with TODAY co-anchors Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie about how to talk to kids about the conflict.

Ask open-ended questions

"We’ve got little kids,” Savannah began, referring to herself and Hoda. “My first question to you is: Do you bring it up if they don’t bring it up?”

“Chances are they’re learning about it, hearing about it, or seeing it somewhere,” Hartstein explained. “So you can bring it up in a very casual way. ‘Hey, there’s a lot going on in the world. Have you heard anything?’”

If they respond "No," it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. 

“You can go, ‘OK. Well, if you hear anything, please come to me and let’s talk about it,” Hartstein said. “We often sit back and let them come to us, whereas I think on this one, you want to get ahead of it a little bit and talk about it first.”

Hartstein emphasized that it's important to take the time to listen and only answer what is being asked, especially with younger children.

Talk to them about social media

With older kids, you should take a more direct approach, according to Hartstein. She recommends sitting them down and asking about what they’re seeing on social media

Hoda was quick to note that getting a teenager to open up is “next to impossible.” Hartstein agreed and offered a sample script that included asking questions such as, “Show me where you’re getting your news,” and “Can you tell me what you’re learning?”

Many Jewish organizations and schools are advising parents to keep their kids off of social media, where violence is playing out in real time. 

“I think it’s great advice, but to Hoda’s point, getting teenagers to get off the phone is really impossible,” Hartstein said. “But we can say, ‘I want you to show me when things get overwhelming so that we can talk it through, because these (images) are creating trauma reactions for all of us right now.'”

In an interview with NBC News NOW, Hartstein added, "Information is coming so quickly. We want to be able to be there and be as present as we can to help filter what we can for them and with them."

Address behavior changes

If your notice behavior changes in your child, it's critical to address those changes right away, Hartstein said.

“'Hey, I noticed that you seem more irritable. I noticed that you seem more overwhelmed. I’m concerned about you,'” Hartstein advised saying. “I think if we put it on the table as something that’s not a big deal to talk about, you might have a better shot because feel seen and heard by you.” 

She noted emotional warning signs for parents to look for:

  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration

Check in with yourself

Hartstein also stressed the importance of parents taking care of their own mental health during this difficult time.

"It’s important to check in with how you are doing with the news, as well, to ensure that you are not flooding your own nervous system," Hartstein said. "Be mindful of how you are feeling so that you can be more present for you children. Additionally, don’t be afraid to say 'I don’t know' when you lack information. It can be a great time to learn together."