War is Devastating. How Do We Protect Our Children?
As news of a declaration of war between parties in the Middle East, ostensibly incited by a third-party terror group, reverberates through our society with dread and rage, it is imperative that we do not forget the children; tragically, many exposed to brutal horrors in the place of conflict and also those living thousands of kilometres away. In South African society, our children are subject to the same horrors as witnesses to staunch parental positions or through the unrelenting media onslaught, both social and broadcast. If you care about your children, you must put an end to any role you play in their re-traumatisation.
You wouldn’t place your child in Gaza right now, so you shouldn’t expose them to it from a distance.
Here’s why: they are already traumatised enough.
Impact of the Pandemic
One of the increasingly apparent impacts on children following the pandemic was the observation of toxic stress. Children’s lives, and, consequently, their sense of ‘meaning,’ were disrupted by multiple losses; the loss of routine, loved ones, rites of passage, appropriate developmental exposure in socialisation, motor and speech stimulation, creative expression, and learning.
For almost two and a half years, death rates were broadcasted by international media, on the radio, on television, across social media, within communities, and in everyday adult conversations. The statistics screamed ‘unsafe.’
Children are exhibiting school avoidance, trust and attachment issues, sensory somatic symptoms (e.g., stomach aches), intense emotions, restlessness, exceptionally high levels of anxiety, antisocial behaviours, and more.
Generalisation and Triggers
Protecting the Kids
The war near Gaza presents adults with choices. We can expose our children to secondary trauma when they are helpless to make any difference, fuel the flames of toxic stress just as their lives return to ‘normal,’ or consciously decide to shield them from our adult discussions, fears, and anxieties.
Let’s avoid arguments on our school group chats (formal or informal), on our social platforms, and within earshot of the children. They simply cannot bear more death statistics. It will haunt them for years to come.
What You Can Do
A community is as rich as its diversity. As an integrated community, regardless of our differing views and justified feelings, we must consciously decide not to divide where there is unity.
Consider two neighbours from entirely different cultural backgrounds who have lived alongside each other for a lifetime and value their deep friendship. Each may have a different perspective on the war raging in the Middle East. To honour their relationship without diminishing their views, they must consciously refrain from making generalisations that might destroy the beautiful bond they share.
Helplessness perpetuates stress. Your child may not be able to affect political change, but you can prioritise seemingly trivial activities over which they do have control. Encourage physical activities – more time in the pool, on the court, family walks in the evenings, or create a pull-up challenge.
If your child is old enough, guide them to a constructive statement or activity, such as prayer, donating clothes to those affected by the strife, or writing a letter to the President asking for peace.
Sensory spaces, like a multi-sensory therapeutic environment or items that create a calming atmosphere, such as soft blue lights or glowing green star stickers, send messages of safety that are reliable and controllable.
Avoid displaying shocking posters or graphic social media content that can leave an indelible imprint of terror in a child’s mind with a single click.
When we are filled with rage, it’s challenging to apply rationality to our words. Simple self-regulation strategies like ‘stop-think-go’ can help us hold back when children are present. Plan how you will signal others to exercise restraint in front of your children in advance. Practicing perspective-taking can help you feel more in control and avoid generalising ‘the enemy’ to your colleagues, neighbours and friends.
Rhythm and Routine
Now, more than ever, refrain from altering your daily routine in any way. The simple acts of dressing, brushing teeth, eating in the morning, bathing, having supper, and bedtime routines maintain a sense of order amid the chaos of war and stories of war. Serve the same lunches, start and end the day at home the same way, and say goodbye and hello as you separate, just as you always do.
War is a Tragedy
Loss of life and trauma are significant ruptures in our lives and how we perceive the world. While we worry, stay informed, and grapple with the news, let’s accept our adult responsibility to shield our precious children. It will require intentional and conscious effort, but you can do it.
Reach out to your child’s teacher if you need support. Seek counsel within your own circles. As parents, let’s stand together and keep discussions related to the war off electronic airwaves and away from our children. A united community is worth protecting.