Talking to Children about Anti-Semitism and Hate Crimes
By Beth Berkowitz, Psy.D, Director of Children’s Clinical Services and Child Training Institute at JFCS’ Parents Place.
There is no doubt that the most recent tragedy in Pennsylvania has escalated our fears. With this sad reminder of the painful consequences of anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred, it is normal for all of us—including children—to experience anxiety, worry, anger and confusion in its aftermath. Below is some guidance to help prepare you for conversations at home.
Talk to Your Children
Avoiding the subject will only increase worry and fears. Encourage your children to ask questions, and do your best to explain what has happened in order to help ease their fears.
Start the conversation by asking what your children or teens have already heard about the shooting and the aftermath. As your children talk, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns.
For preschool children: Be mindful of exposing young children to adult conversations. But, do not assume that they do not sense your emotions or have not heard your conversations. While we all do our best to limit our conversations around children, they often hear more than we think they do. Also remember that children may not understand all of your conversations and will fill in the blanks on their own, often with misconceptions or inaccurate information.
Try to Limit News Coverage Exposure
Do your best to avoid coverage of the event details around young children. Continue reassuring them that schools, community centers, synagogues, and law enforcement are working really hard to prevent any future events from happening again. Too much news coverage can be stressful for all of us. Take in what you need and then limit the rest.
Allow Your Children to Discuss Their Fears
Teens may also want to talk about situations where they have experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism, discrimination or hate. No matter what the ages of your child it is likely they will ask if something like this can happen here. It is important to respond to the reasonable likelihood while also bearing in mind that what they really want to know is that the adults are keeping them safe.
This may be a good time to review safety plans for your family as well as assuring them that their schools, community centers and synagogues are reviewing their safety plans as well.
Reassure Your Children that They Are Safe
Also let your children know that their synagogues may increase security during worship services and even Sunday school. Talk to your children and teens about these efforts to promote safety. Be sure they know that these individuals are there to protect congregants as well as to provide any help needed. This discussion may help to reduce the anxiety surrounding religious activities. If your children attend Jewish schools or attend activities at Jewish community centers, learn about efforts to ensure safety and security in these settings. If your children ever feel uncomfortable about their safety, be sure that they know that you are available to talk and address these concerns.
Be Aware of Signs That Your Child or Teenager Is Struggling Emotionally
Stay alert to signals of distress such as refusing to attend school, or having nightmares, headaches, and stomachaches. There could also be signs of declining school performance, loss of appetite, or diminished relationships with others. Children who are struggling emotionally may become more irritable or have trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. Don’t hesitate to seek help if these symptoms persist.
Gather as a Community
It is more important than ever that we come together as a community during times of increased stress and tragedy. Remembering that as individuals we are resilient and as a community we are even stronger is key to our healing process. Reach out to family and friends and gather together as a community to strengthen bonds and support our collective spirit.
A Message from JFCS:
We are all full of sorrow in the wake of the terrible loss of life and hateful act of anti-Semitism at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We send prayers for strength and healing to those who are suffering, and we are grateful for the expressions of support echoing across the country and the world at this difficult time.
JFCS remains dedicated to our efforts to bring people together to fight prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism at home and around the world. Our Holocaust Center offers resources for students, educators, and the entire community on standing up courageously against hate and intolerance.
For anyone experiencing trauma, grief or bereavement from this event, JFCS is here to provide support. Through our Parents Place services, our specialists provide coaching, consultations, and specialists who work with children and families.
Five Ways You Can Help Your Kids Feel Safe in an Unsafe World, from the Parents Place blog.
Beth Berkowitz, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience providing treatment to children, adolescents, and their families in outpatient, day treatment, residential, and school-based settings. She has extensive experience serving children who struggle with anxiety, depression, attention difficulties, and family separation. Beth has spent the past eight years administering clinical training programs, supervising clinical staff, facilitating clinical seminars, and directing program development in the nonprofit sector. Beth’s commitment to mental health, strength-based services, and culturally informed treatment have been the hallmarks of her many years of clinical service and management. Beth holds a Master of Arts Degree in Clinical Psychology/Theater Arts from Cal State University and completed her Doctor of Psychology degree at California School of Professional Psychology where she focused on Adolescent Development.