By Jacki Post Ashkin, MSW, LCSW-C
Antisemitism has been rising at an alarming rate over the past several years. Few of us can forget high profile incidents capturing the media’s attention including the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 or the echoes of “Jews will not replace us” chanted during the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Recently, high profile public figures have openly spouted antisemitic rhetoric or embraced those who do. But this rise in hate is not only affecting us on a societal level; it is touching us in very personal ways. Last year, 41% of American Jews, young and old, experienced an act of antisemitism.
It is hard for us, as adults, to process the hate or comprehend why there seem to be people who condone it, either outright or through their silence and indifference. What’s more, hatred and discrimination take a toll on our mental health. It can affect our day-to-day quality of life, triggering fear, anxiety, stress, doubt, and insecurity. Whether it is apparent or not, our children are paying attention to what is happening. They are hearing the messages of antisemitism and may also be direct targets of hateful words and actions. How are our children to make sense of what is happening if it makes no sense to us? How can we, as parents and grandparents, guide and support our children?
First, it is important for us to be aware of what our children may be seeing and hearing from the news, social media, or classmates and be ready to have honest conversations with them about it.
Even if they don’t bring it up verbally, children will often give us signs that they need to talk about things that are bothering them. A pre-school aged child may want to cuddle more. Elementary-aged children may want reassurance they are safe. Teens may be more vocal in their opinions about the world.
Prepare yourself for these sensitive conversations. First, seek support yourself, if needed, and educate yourself so you can feel ready and empowered to talk with your children. How much information and detail you share will be based on a child’s age and maturity level. Stacey Meadows, MSW, LCSW-C, Associated Senior Manager of JCS Therapy Services, offers these developmental guidelines to help you have conversations with your children.
Preschool (aged 2-5)
- Let them know there are good and bad people in the world and reassure them you want to protect them and keep them safe.
Elementary school (aged 6 to 12)
- Talk about how there are cultural differences among people that are generally respected by most people.
- Explain there are groups of people who choose to use negativity and violence to show their disapproval of certain cultures and this is not ok.
Middle and High school (aged 13 to 18)
- Invite your child to watch or read the news with you and ask them to share their thoughts and feelings.
- Let them know they can come to you with any questions or concerns when they feel ready to talk
Having conversations about hate can be difficult for everyone. Remember to follow your child’s lead and pace. Listen to your child as they talk and ask questions. If you’re not sure of how to answer, it is ok to say you don’t know how to answer them and that you are still learning. Be willing to keep the lines of communication open and revisit the discussion when appropriate.
It is possible for troubling events to trigger stress reactions in children. Children respond to stressful events differently than adults. Parents should keep a watchful eye for changes in their child’s behavior. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), here are some signs to look for:
Preschool-Age children: Fearful of being separated from parent, crying, changes in sleep and eating patterns
Elementary-Age children: Anxious or worried feelings about safety, trouble sleeping, becoming easily upset
Adolescents: Sad mood and withdrawn or increased irritability, engaging in risk-taking behaviors
If you or your child are experiencing extreme or persistent signs of a stress reaction, please consider seeking guidance from a licensed mental health professional.
Children need reassurance. So do adults. Antisemitism or any other form of hate uncovers an ugliness we hoped would be left in the past. Perhaps we can take comfort in seeing some of the inspired movements condemning this dangerous hostility and prejudice. Although difficult, when we have healthy conversations with our children about hate in the world, it can instill values that will bring change.
JCS is proud to be an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore who has joined with Jewish Federations of North America, and numerous other nonprofits and corporations in a national effort to Shine a Light on Antisemitism. #ShineALight
Jacki Post Ashkin, MSW, LCSW-C is Director of Community Connections at Jewish Community Services.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence.
To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.