Liam McCann, the social worker for The Rashi School, is accustomed to offering comfort in times of chaos. Over the past few weeks, McCann has worked with the school’s rabbi and dean of Jewish learning to help kids process events in the Middle East.
“We met them at a point of compassion and acceptance. There’s no wrong or right way to internally or externally navigate these unprecedented times. I really encouraged them to connect with people in ways that felt good to them,” he says. “I found that the safest way to do that was through a student-centered approach: What do you know so far? What have you heard? What’s on your mind right now?’”
McCann paused to chat with me about how to guide kids with centeredness and empowerment as news unfolds.
How have kids been affected by this news? On the one hand, this is a tragedy unfolding halfway across the world, and it could be very abstract for children. On the other, it could feel very immediate and terrifying.
It’s very individualized based on the age of the students, their family dynamics and connections to Israel. I’m really guiding the students toward the concept of two truths. What is going on right now is terrifying and unforeseen. It’s not just children feeling this way; adults are feeling this way also. While balancing that, there are still opportunities for us to find joy each day, and I remind them to not feel guilty if they find themselves in those moments of joy: I was just outside laughing at recess and having a good time. Am I worthy of having a good time right now, based on what children my age thousands of miles away are going through? I’m balancing those two truths for them and speaking to the locus of control.
What can oftentimes disregulate us the most is our desire to control the uncontrollable. This is really just going to wear us out. I try to bring the focus back to community and understanding that maybe I cannot have an incredibly direct, tangible impact on what’s happening today. But I can offer monetary support or build my awareness and learn. We have an open space to write letters for Israeli families and soldiers. Team members mail those out at the end of each school week. It starts with normalization and reminding them that all feelings are welcome, and that adults’ main goal is to keep them safe each and every day.
I often have similar conversations with professionals like yourself after school shootings. How do you talk through the “control” issue with kids and ease them into the concept that there are some things in life that are simply uncontrollable?
I start by telling them that it’s not just a childhood thing, and all of a sudden you become an adult, and you have control over all of these external things. It doesn’t matter how young or old we are. We have little control over the words and the actions of people around us. What is within our control is how we respond in those moments, how we react and how we can set ourselves up for whatever that loose definition of success might be. How can we frame those situations in terms of: “If it’s out of my control, let it go. What is in my control? Let’s take a stance on that right now.”
For example, if you’re facing antisemitism: Let’s make a plan for whom you might be able to reach out to in that moment, and what you might say. I can choose to become incredibly enraged, or I can choose to practice coping techniques. I can choose to disengage if that’s what would be best for me.
The difference between good choices and not-so-good choices is usually about 60 to 90 seconds. That really critical in-between time is where I take my deep breaths, where I remind myself what I can control in this moment and how can I take steps forward that feel good to me and help me feel like I made a difference, even only as one person in this gigantic world. Can I look back on this moment and say that I stood up for what was right, and I’m proud of the decision that I made?
What about kids who are feeling different or unsupported? What if you’re struggling to find community beyond school or your Jewish friends?
I think it starts with the self: You’re identifying as feeling unsupported. You can ask 10 different people, and support means 10 different things. What does support feel like to you? What kind of control do you have in terms of finding that support for yourself? Can you engage with your friends in a hopeful way, even in just letting them know what’s currently on your mind?
We talk a lot about “I” statements versus “you” statements. In a situation like that, could “You’re not supportive” be communicated as, “I felt really fearful, frightened and upset over these last few weeks, based on what’s going on. I think it would be great to receive support in this way.” Maybe you just want to go to a movie with friends, or you just want to celebrate your birthday like it’s any other year. Communicate your wants and needs in a non-blaming way. What is it that you need as the unique person that you are?
How do you counsel kids to wade through social media?
Social media is a vast beast with tons of information from so many different sides. So much of it is unhealthy for not only the freshly developing minds of teens and preteens, but also adults. We really start by saying: “Please be incredibly careful about your social media use. There is a lot of misinformation out there.” We might even encourage setting limits—really bringing self-awareness to the concept of doom-scrolling.
That level of trust really starts with the adults, whether it’s us here in the building or whether it’s parents acknowledging: “You might be coming across a ton on social media, and there’s a lot of misinformation. This is a really hard conversation to have, and the reason that I’m having it is because I want you to know that you can come to me with the hardest conversations and the hardest questions, and I am an adult who cares about you. I will be honest with you and will give you accurate information.”
It’s a balance between encouraging and not demanding, bringing their awareness to the potential pitfalls of diving into social media and taking everything as truthful, while also providing them with that safety net: “Social media can and will be a scary place, and I am a trustworthy human whom you can come to when it feels like too much.”
Kids might feel helpless, or they might pick up on their parents’ anxiety. Is there a way to channel that into empowerment and goodness?
Our community has come together in a variety of ways. Rashi, along with a handful of Jewish day schools in the area, are welcoming in families who may have fled Israel within the last couple of weeks. A large cohort of our Jewish day schools have been leading tours, encouraging them that this can be a space to find an academic anchor and the consistency and routine of a school under the basis of their familiar religion, even if it is a really new place and new environment.
We’re helping our students realize how big their Jewish community actually is. When you think of opportunities like that, it’s as simple as welcoming a new student into a friend group; showing them games that you like to play; channeling these natural, innate characteristics that they already have to be compassionate, to be empathic.
In addition to letters, students have come to me to brainstorm how they can transition from feeling helpless to feeling like they’re making a difference. Sometimes that involves a little bit of research: Are there any organizations that are meaningful to you that you’d like to get involved with? What is help, and what does help look like? Is it monetary help? Materialistic help? Social and emotional help? It’s about really reminding them that we can change the world, one action at a time, and that their actions carry weight and carry value. Kids can carry so much weight on themselves sometimes, in terms of wanting to make a difference but feeling helpless. It’s about reminding them that sometimes what feels like the smallest act of kindness or the smallest change in our routine or approach can mean so much more to the people receiving it.
I mentioned those two truths: the pain and the tragedy and the terror that is existing for everyone. And there are moments of joy and opportunity that we can seize from each day, also, and I think our pre-K through eighth grade students have really shown us that more than ever over these last couple of weeks through their innate desire to make the world a better place one action at a time.
Any parting words for parents who might be dealing with anxious kids while coping with their own anxiety?
I think so much of it boils down to trust. We can get caught up in thinking about saying the exact right words and avoiding certain topics. When your kids might approach you about what’s going on, they’re figuring out: Is this a person in my life whom I can go to with the hard questions? Or will they tell me: “We don’t need to talk about that”?
Just offer children the space to share and navigate what they know, reinforcing that this parent, this caregiver, this teacher, is a person who cares about me enough that they will engage in the really hard conversations. Especially with parents, that relationship is built even throughout the teenage years, and it remains set in [kids’] brains that, even when things are hardest and scariest, I know that my parent, my caregiver, can be this anchor for me and can engage in a way that makes me feel heard and understood.
Meet them where they’re at: What do you know? Do you have any specific questions? Letting them take the lead in an age-appropriate fashion is, I think, the most successful way to not only navigate this but to strengthen that relationship when things can feel absolutely awful, knowing they have a person in their corner.