Parenting under fire: As rockets rain, a bomb shelter guide for Israeli parents

Expert insight into managing your children’s’ mental health: Don’t tell them to stop being scared, embrace the tears, and expect regression, like bedwetting, says therapist

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Residents look in shock, after a rocket directly hits a house in Ashkelon, southern Israel, early morning on August 26, 2014. (Flash90/File)
Residents look in shock, after a rocket directly hits a house in Ashkelon, southern Israel, early morning on August 26, 2014. (Flash90/File)

As rockets rain down, sirens blare, and families repeatedly race to shelters, millions of Israeli parents are struggling to find the right words to talk to their children about the national security crisis.

How should they explain the dash to the safe room? What is the appropriate response to kids’ fears? And what can be done with news-addicted teenagers who are working themselves into a frenzy?

Susan Raanan, a mental health professional who has been working for two decades with children in the Gaza periphery area, where she lives, answered these and other questions for The Times of Israel.

During the telephone interview, which took place on Thursday, Raanan, a family therapist, psychotherapist, and dance therapist, who works in southern Israeli schools and in private practice, was herself listening for sirens. “If there’s a red alert, I’m going to have to sign off suddenly — I don’t have phone reception in my safe room,” she said.

How should parents explain the situation to children when sirens sound and they need to take shelter?

The most important thing of all is for parents to remain calm and always tell the truth. Remember, children are very quick on picking up when parents are trying to make things seem rosier than they are.

Parents should explain to children that sirens are there to protect them, and explain that the sirens are the country’s way of trying to keep them safe. If children are old enough, it’s also good to discuss the context of why there is rocket fire.

Illustrative: Children sit together inside a street shelter, in anticipation of the Code Red siren alerting of incoming rockets, in the Southern Israeli town of Nitzan, on the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 11, 2014. (Flash 90/File)

But what if the parents themselves aren’t calm?

It’s a challenge, and to be fearful or anxious is a natural reaction for everyone. What’s really important is to practice responding to a siren ahead of time. When parents feel they are able to get to the safe room in time, they will be calmer about managing the challenge. On top of that, parents should manage their own anxiety, using breathing techniques and other methods which they can research online.

Susan Raanan (courtesy of Susan Raanan)

What should parents expect from their children while in the safe room or shelter? How should they support them?

There should be books, games and computers there for children to use. But in a state of hyper-alertness, a lot of children find it difficult to concentrate or do anything apart from cry. If this happens, hold and comfort the child. Don’t tell them to stop being afraid. This isn’t helpful — it dismisses what they are feeling. Rather, acknowledge that it is a scary situation and reassure them that you are with them and things will be okay.

Then after the alert has passed, go to YouTube for breathing exercises, music, and movement exercises to “shake out the fear” and reduce levels of tension. This is a very worthwhile thing to do.

Should parents try to talk about what’s happening, or is the precise opposite better — to distract with other topics?

Some children will want to talk about what’s happening, others will not. Let the children determine your approach. Afterwards, it’s very important to ask the kids how they are feeling. Let them express their thoughts, and never negate their feelings, whatever they may be.

Often, children will create healthy dynamics themselves. One of the most healthy is sibling support. The sibling dynamic can be very helpful. If children can support each other during stressful times, it creates a sense of unity. Helping them realize that they can get through things with one another leaves them feeling confident and empowered with inner strength. Also, if there’s a family pet, bring them into the safe room as it can be very soothing.

A medic carries 8-years-old Eitan Vhnstok at the scene where an apartment building was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on May 11, 2021. (Edi Israel/ Flash90)

How should people manage teenagers, who may not respond well to instructions from adults?

Stubborn teenagers can be a problem. One of the things we’ve noticed is that teenagers would rather video the Iron Dome system shooting down rockets rather than being in the safe room. This is very difficult to overcome, but parents must be firm. It’s important to establish ahead of time, that going into a safe space is important and can save lives.

Another phenomenon is teenagers who are constantly on their phones following every news development, and therefore constantly keyed into the conflict, taking their anxiety levels sky-high. How can parents address this?

First and foremost, parents have to set the example. They need to not have the television on constantly, showing pictures of the violence, and not constantly be on their phones checking developments. The obsessiveness to be constantly in touch with the news often starts with adults, and parents can instead set an example.

If teenagers are following the conflict a lot, then trying to shut down their WhatsApp or TikTok will only cause anger. The best thing is to ask them to share some of what they are reading and seeing. That way, parents can become an emotional buffer, helping them process what they are seeing.

Damage to homes in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon which were hit by rockets fired by Hamas militants in Gaza, into Israel. May 12, 2021. (Edi Israel/Flash90

Lots of Israelis have apps that tell then when there are sirens, by sounding an alert. Some people have alerts for the whole country, as a way of following the news, rather than using the app just in case there is an alert in their area. Is this a problem?

Israeli apps alert users whenever a missile is headed into the country. (Sam Sokol)

Yes. People with kids should set the app to only give alerts that are directly relevant to them, otherwise children have unnecessarily heightened stress levels from endless alerts, and an inflated sense of the danger they may be facing.

We see lots of parents posting pictures and videos of their kids in safe rooms to illustrate to others, especially those abroad, what Israel is going through. Is this healthy or not?

In normal situations, I’d say this kind of use of social media is not healthy. But in this situation, when parents get responses and support on social media from outside their area, they themselves feel better. Children also have a need for people to know what they are going through. In these circumstances, if the parents want to share images or videos that have the respective children’s approval and don’t embarrass them — crying images shouldn’t be used —then there is a case to be made for such posts.

Any general tips?

Keeping a routine is very important, especially in areas where children are home from school because of the situation. The COVID-19 crisis gave parents experience in this area. The other thing is that parents should be very aware of signs of stress, especially if children are not willing to engage with them. If a child is keeping everything inside, that can be a sign that he or she is feeling a lot of stress.

Many parents will see bedwetting and other regressive behaviors and not know whether to worry and seek help immediately or wait. What is best?

If parents are anxious, they should call their local clinic, but it is normal that at times of stress we see regressive behavior, like returning to a pacifier that a child has given up, to a security blanket, or bedwetting. But this kind of behavior normally passes within about a week after sirens end.

If parents are finding that they last longer, they should seek help. The same goes for other signs of ongoing distress, like older children not wanting to go to the bathroom alone, which is normal during violence, but should stop afterward. If it does not, parents should seek professional help.

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