Parent sat on sofa speaking to child
Children, young people and families, Violence and trauma

Helping children to process the horrors of war

The BPS has offered guidance for parents on talking to their children about the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

25 October 2023

By BPS Communications

As the conflict in the Middle East continues to occupy front page news, children may be struggling to cope with the videos, images and descriptions of events they are seeing on TV and social media, and discussing in the playground. However, parents and carers may also feel ill-equipped to discuss the war, with its long history and difficult debates. 

In response, expert child psychologists from the BPS's Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP) have provided advice to help parents have those difficult conversations and engage with their children's questions and emotions. 

Professor Vivian Hill, a member of the DECP, said: 

"Many children and young people will be distressed by what they see of the war, and may need support to regulate their emotional reactions. However, parents are uniquely placed to help.

"Some children will need reassurance that they are safe, while older children may need support to understand the complexities of the situation.

"By taking the time to listen, and to help them process their own thoughts and emotions about the conflict, parents can provide comfort and help children cope with their difficult feelings." 

Professor Hill advises: 

1. Manage your emotions so you can help your children manage theirs 

As well as the horrific images we see on the news from Israel and Gaza, the claims and counter-claims of the two sides add to the confusion and open up complex political and religious debates. It's difficult for adults to make sense of this, and of course even more so for children and young people. Give yourself some time and space to process your own feelings and reactions first, and then you'll be in a better place to help your children process theirs. 

2. Use open questions to explore your children's experiences and feelings and use these as a starting point 

Ask your children what they have heard and seen and how they are feeling. This allows them to introduce their personal perspectives and understandings first, so you can focus on their needs rather than your assumptions about how they might be feeling. Using open and neutral questions and not introducing our words into the questions avoids signalling to them that they should be worried or upset. 

To help those who are concerned, try researching together, using maps of the region or reading the history of the conflict together, to help them to better understand the risks and complexities of the war. 

3. Acknowledge the horror of war 

As they grow up children inevitably develop their understanding of social injustice, inequalities and the horror of war. This can make them feel upset, angry, frightened or unsafe. Helping children learn how to process difficult information, feelings and emotions is a key role for parents and carers. 

Letting your children see how you cope with this information will help them to cope too. That might be modelling regulating how much news you watch or engage with and explaining why. Examples could include saying 'this is horrible, I'm going for a walk, do you want to come too?', doing something you enjoy together, or demonstrating how you manage to put difficult thoughts and feelings aside. 

4. Focus on the importance of peace and unity 

All wars involve propaganda and difficult narratives, so try to maintain a balanced view and a focus on peaceful solutions and outcomes. Whatever position you take, talking about the importance of ending the war and hostilities, on keeping people safe, and promoting peaceful solutions, will help your children feel reassured.