Helping Your Children Cope If Israel Is Attacked

Dr. Batya L. Ludman
Israel News Agency

Haifa----July 14...... Being in a sealed room or bomb shelter in Israel is not easy for an adult at the best of times, but should we have to go into our shelters today or tomorrow, how can we make this an easier experience for our children?

Most children in Israel will cope very well with being in a shelter as they will be with their parents and will therefore feel secure. Assuming that parents remain calm and are in control, children will feel safe. It is important to remember that if you are calm-they will be calm.

You can make this a “fun” experience, stay in control and give them a sense of safety and security. This should be your primary concern. While few would acknowledge that the experience of being in a closed space for an unknown period of time with children is enjoyable, there are ways to make the best out of the situation and make things more bearable. Here are a few suggestions for the Israel public.

Talk to your children before there might be an actual need to use the “safe room” but wait till the time seems right. Let them know that should the situation warrant it, you would be taking them into the designated space. Describe the space or area that they will be in. For some families, a rehearsal or simply seeing the space may seem like a good idea and can help everyone plan and prepare. For others, it may only provoke anxiety. You know your family’s needs the best. Some children may benefit from having a buddy to chat with and this may be something you may want to arrange with another parent who has a child that is close in age and whose family has similar beliefs.

Make the information developmentally and age appropriate. The impact of preparing a safe space on your child is very much dependent on their age and stage of emotional development, their temperament, your anxiety level and their proximity or exposure to previous or current danger. Typically, children do best with simple and straightforward explanations and not a lot of unnecessary details. While it is important to be honest and upfront, it serves no purpose to overwhelm them with your fears. Many children know far more about what is happening in Israel than we realize and most, if not all, children who attend school have had many preparatory drills and are both informed and quite “cool” about the whole thing.

Children can go from being intensely concerned by details to nonchalantly playing with a friend in a short span of time. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be more uptight and anxious for more prolonged periods of time. You may be feeling tense but they don’t have to. It is important to choose your words carefully to ensure that you get across the message that you hope to convey. When listening to their questions, you may need to probe deeper to find out what they are really asking, or maybe, it is only you, and not they, that see the deeper issues. You do not need to be an expert on Lebanon, Syria, Iran or Gaza.

It is important to clear up any inaccuracies that your children may have as this confusion can only complicate an already difficult situation. The element of not being able to predict can be especially hard and this fear of the unknown is often what causes us the most anxiety as we play games in our minds and imagine the worst. This is important to point out to children as often they do the same.

While it is fine to acknowledge that you have concerns and cannot necessarily answer all the questions, you can also help them have many of their concerns addressed and clarified. Some children have never thought about the possibility of being in any danger so they may have lots of unanswered questions. Older children worry more about their own safety and about that of adults that are important to them. Death becomes more real and while some children may be oblivious, others may appear depressed, scared, withdrawn or preoccupied.

The seriousness of the news on Israel television, radio or Internet has not eluded them nor has it given them comfort. You may be asked very difficult questions. In any event, children need to talk, express their concerns and have their feelings validated. You are the one person who can provide this reassurance. You need to convey to them that their safety takes top priority and you are doing all that you can to ensure this. Very young children may need little information beyond telling them that they will be in a room with their parents and will play. Children need to know that you will be there for them and if not you, someone whom you have chosen that is an equally good substitute. Lots of hugs and a good cuddle can go a long way to helping children feel comfortable.

Make the space as child friendly as possible. Let children pick one or two things that they set aside as special to bring into the room with them. This may be their favorite blanket, a puzzle or a toy. For older children, a game boy, a book, musical instrument such as a guitar, a deck of cards or just a note pad and pen may be fine. Arts and crafts supplies, photo albums and other family ideas are great to help pass the time. Now may be the perfect opportunity to work on creating a family collage. A tape recorder and tapes can also be soothing for everyone. It may even be fun to create your own family tape of songs and stories.

Make sure that the space is child safe. There should not be dangerous shelving units or other heavy pieces of furniture that could fall off the wall, open plugs or sharp objects that a child can be injured by. A fan can be very helpful as the room can get quite stuffy but again attention needs to be focused on the blades and cord.

Empower the children so they feel good about their protected space. Ask for their thoughts and input on various safety issues and plan assignments that work for each of them. Young children can be in charge of making temporary decorations and older children can help collect the supplies and foodstuffs. They can also help to organize the area. Each child can have a job specific to his or her age. Everyone can think of a special game, song or finger play that they will help to teach to others.

Be clear and consistent about the rules in the shelter. For example, if the rule is that everyone has to go into the shelter when a parent says to go in, then children need to know that this is critical. There is no room for negotiation but you can give choices whenever possible. For example, a younger child needs to know that when a parent says to go into the shelter when told, he must do so. However, he can be given choices as to whom he sits next to, and can choose which game to play. This can also be reinforced through stickers that the children get to put on their books or on a chart or through picking a nonedible treat for later from a small surprise bag of goodies.

Food and drinks should be child friendly. Food and drinks should be kept in the miklat which are child friendly. Each child’s special treat can be set aside for a rough moment. Each person should have his or her own individually sealed color-coded water bottles, as these are the safest to drink from.

Consider the health needs of your child. Keep some diapers for young children and a potty bucket or chemical toilet for older children. A supply of children’s medications should be available in the miklat in the event that they will be needed.

Comfort is important. Keep a second set of clothes for each child in the room so that a change of clothing can be done easily. For younger children, long sleeved pajamas may be the perfect choice in terms of comfort.

Think relaxation. Practice relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation or prayer to enable everyone to feel calm. Young children do well when they can pretend to be limp spaghetti noodles and older children like to pretend that they are lying on a nice beach or floating on a pond.

Read up and be prepared on what supplies you should have with you and know what the suggested emergency procedures and numbers are for your area in Israel. Keep this list close at hand.

Help children feel that they are in control. Although we would all acknowledge that these are very unpredictable times in Israel, it is helpful for children to have predictability. When they are not in the shelter, it is important to keep up with routine as much as possible. Schedules with respect to meals, bedtimes, and play dates with other children help give everyone a sense of normalcy. Routine is also important should we need to use our protected space over time. If children become familiar with a pattern, they know what to expect and are less anxious and more matter of fact. In spite of all of increased difficulties over the past two years, look how well most of us have coped and have made the unpredictable, routine.

Use television as a tool to help you and the family relieve stress and beware of the impact that it has on the children if things should escalate. Children may not be able to differentiate reality from fantasy and a television on in the background may not be quite as harmless for little ears as you think. Renting a video or exchanging videos with friends may be the best form of family entertainment and can be a useful distracter in the shelter if you also have a radio.

Finally, in order to look after our children we must look after ourselves. If you or your children are not coping well, get professional help to enable you to be less anxious. Children need to see you as an effective role model. We all hope and pray that soon we will be able to look back at this and laugh at how over-prepared we were. Preparation is a wonderful way to cope when we are not yet quite sure just what it is we are going to be coping with. In the meantime, while there are no easy answers and these are only suggestions, enabling your child to feel comfortable and secure is one of the best gifts you can provide during these very difficult times. Good luck.

Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana, Israel. She specializes in trauma, bereavement and loss, stress, anxiety and depression, parenting issues, behavioral problems, marital and communication issues. She conducts workshops on bereavement, stress management, and trauma, and has published extensively in both the professional and lay literature. Ludman currently has a bi-monthly column in The Jerusalem Post. For more information, please view her website at


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