Updates at JFS from our CEO & President, Jennie I. Schaff
As we witness a rapid rise in antisemitism in our country with an unprecedented number of direct attacks on our Jewish community, we are faced with fear, tension, and an onslaught of questions both in our own minds and from our youth. Children today are growing up in a day and age of which the adults in their lives have never known the likes. As children, adults of today experienced fire and tornado drills, but not active shooting and lockdown drills.
During times of crisis or uncertainty, children instinctively find solace in the people and places who are most familiar. Parents and immediate family are often the most direct points of contact for processing what the child is experiencing. Children also find comfort in schools, places of worship, and community centers. What feels sudden albeit necessary after such attacks are that these places are now inundated with security guards, police men and women, marked cars, intercoms, bag checks and even metal detectors. It would be remiss to think that because our children are familiar with active shooter trainings, that they are not noticing increased security in the places where they are used to feeling the most safe and secure.
This is a critical time to engage in age appropriate dialogue with our children. Though they may seem “unphased” by recent events, it is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to recognize that sometimes children are afraid to ask questions. They often interpret silence as indicative of something bad, terrible, or even worse -- something that adults don’t know how to handle. Such a construct often proves to be the most terrifying.
Honesty is critical when talking to children of any age. The level of detail or facts that you choose to express will vary based on the child and his or her age and developmental level. Keep in mind the “old” rule: children will ask for more information if they can handle it, and they will stop asking questions when they have heard enough and their minds are saturated. While age influences how we respond to uncertainty, grief and trauma; regardless of age, children need to feel both seen and heard.
Before talking to any child, it is important to understand what the child already knows and how they are making sense of such knowledge. Use this conversation as an opportunity to correct any misinformation you hear a child convey.
The most ideal time to talk to children is during a normal routine: in the car or during dinner. Having the conversation out of context from everyday routine signifies a ‘separateness’ from life that may be interpreted by the child as something that is unable to be integrated. This can exacerbate the level of fear and can off-set the message itself.
As parents, caregivers, and/or trusted adults, we must acknowledge some truths. Antisemitism, racism and hatred exist in our world. As a result, anxiety, fear, confusion and anger are rampant. While our children are trying to make sense of what they are witnessing, so too are the adults around them. In the face of such uncertainty, children turn to trusted adults for guidance and help.
Recognize that as parents, caregivers, teachers, and other adults in children’s lives, there is no “right way” to do this. There are, actually, plenty of right ways. The conversation will not be easy, but by virtue of simply beginning the dialogue, you are instilling a level of safety for children and giving them an opportunity to express what feels scary to them. At the same time, you are saying that you see the child, and you see the world they are living in, and perhaps most importantly, you are willing to navigate this unprecedented territory with them.
Adults, be gentle with yourselves. You will do no harm in attempting a hard conversation. The only harm will come in not acknowledging this changing and sometimes frightening world with them.
With hope for a better time,
Jennie I. Schaff, Ph.D.
Jewish Family Service of Rochester, Inc.
441 East Avenue
Rochester, NY 14607
T: (585) 461-0110
F: (585) 461-9658
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