Our Chief Executive Naomi Dickson Offers Advice to children and families who are struggling this Children’s Mental Health Week
Our Chief Executive Naomi Dickson Offers Advice to children and families who are struggling this Children’s Mental Health Week
Thu, 8th Feb 2024

The tragic events of October 7th and its aftermath have had a significant impact on Jewish families in the UK, with the CST recording 133 incidents related to the school sector – 59 affecting students and teachers at non-Jewish schools, and 45 experienced by Jewish schoolchildren travelling to or from school. Inevitably, children’s mental health is being adversely affected, and we are fortunate that our communal organisations including Norwood have the expertise and resources to support vulnerable members of the community.

Teams in our own holistic Children and Families Service report that many children are experiencing hyperawareness about the conflict, and some are re-enacting their experience of conflict to try to come to terms with it. Whilst awareness of specific details may vary from child to child depending on their age – you would expect secondary school aged children to have had more exposure to content on social media, in particular – our teams have also noted that another defining factor is whether they go to a Jewish or mainstream school.

Integrating displaced Israeli families in Jewish schools brings the war closer for many and affects children in a more personal way than it might otherwise. The exposure of British Jewish schoolchildren to the first-hand experiences of their new Israeli peers risks them experiencing significant second hand, or vicarious trauma. This happens particularly where other children have experienced personal loss, for example due to bereavement, displacement, a parent being called up to army service, or hostage-taking.

All schools have a vital role to play in supporting children impacted by conflict, and of course Jewish school leaders are very aware of their responsibility for the emotional and physical safety of the children and staff in their care. This is overlaid by heightened security concerns for the British Jewish community, and of course some teachers themselves may be experiencing personal trauma from the conflict.

Children in mainstream schools, meanwhile, might be experiencing dissonance, as a result of the significant differences in their outlook compared to those expressed by their peers and on social media, with regard to Israel. Where previously they may have felt their British and Jewish identities were compatible, they might now be experiencing cracks for the first time. They may be forced to grapple with challenging questions that lie at the root of their identity, and some are openly challenged about their position on the conflict in their school environment.

The response of schools is particularly important in enabling children to process events. Some schools have forbidden political rhetoric – a blanket ban to avoid inflaming tensions. But children need to be able to air and address their concerns – these schools miss out on a vital opportunity to promote and champion healthy dialogue around difficult issues in a respectful and inclusive way.

Language is crucial – it’s important not just to position war as being about binary positions, right and wrong. It helps children to understand that there are multiple perspectives, and many different types of people are invested in it, but this isn’t a conflict between citizens. It’s important to reassure your child that the war won’t last forever. The key message to share with them is one of hope, peace, and the situation coming to an end.

We all like our routines, and when they are disrupted, it can be challenging, particularly for younger children. Neuro-diverse children, who often already see the world in their own way, may experience more intense versions of their usual emotions – children who were angry are likely to be angrier; if they were anxious, they are likely to be more anxious. Often, neuro-diverse children may take threats to their safety, and of their family and their environment more seriously.

Children often pick up on their parents’ anxiety and might be wary about adding to it by sharing their concerns, so it’s important that they are aware of the appropriate channels for reporting abuse – whether that’s the CST or the Police. To alleviate worries about enhanced Police presence, you could encourage children to smile and say thank you to the security guards or Police they may see at Jewish institutions, or consider raising money or volunteering for support organisations. It’s important that children have opportunities to come together as a community and build empathy, and are reminded that in challenging times, we don’t have to deal with challenges alone, we can all look out for each other instead.

We can all always benefit from reminding ourselves of things to be thankful for. We know that adults are struggling too – it can feel hard explaining to a child the difficulty each one of us has to stay positive when we are feeling such a mix of helplessness, sadness and anger at the ongoing situation.

Open conversations with children are a great tool to give them the space to ask you questions. Share your mechanisms for coping with anxiety to provide them with techniques that they can also use, whether that’s going for a walk, exercising, or talking to friends.

Many communal organisations, like ours, have the expertise and resources to offer support to children and families who are struggling. Please do get in touch if we can help you.

If you or child is experiencing challenges as a result of the current conflict in Israel, you can contact our Children and Family Team for support on 020 8457 4745, or by emailing kennedy.leighinfo@norwood.org.uk

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