Age-based Honesty Key to Mental Health of Lebanese Children Facing War

2024-03-26    |   

Age-based Honesty Key to Mental Health of Lebanese Children Facing War

In one neighborhood of the Haouch region, Tyre, five-year-old Ali receives me with the innocent words, “Sir, do you know we might flee from the house because the Israelis want to burn it?” I look into the child’s eyes and do not know how to respond. Sensing my hesitation, his grandmother smiles and addresses him, “No, my dear, we won’t let them”. She then turns to me, as if to tell me not to worry about finding the right response, and says, “These children know everything”. Indeed, Ali knows a lot. His grandmother talks to him as I listen and record, and I hear him refer to the children of Gaza as his “siblings”. He talks about how they are being killed by Israeli missiles falling on their homes: “They did nothing wrong”. His imagination runs wild, and I hear him say that he actually went to Gaza. I ask him how it looks. He pauses for a moment and then responds, “Like here. There are many trees, but the Israelis are bombing them”.


From where did the five-year-old boy learn all this information? His mother says that he hears the daily bombardment, the neighbors’ conversations, the news bulletins that leak to him, and some of the family discussions. She stresses that she tries to spare her son from having to live the war, “But the war is being forced upon us”. With the Israeli military aggression that has been ongoing for approximately five months, the children of the south are today living in a climate of war. The way they interact with the war and the extent of its impact on them differs depending on their circumstances, mental and emotional state, and cognitive abilities. Because they are in their formative years, their consciousness is being exposed to challenges and concepts that children their age are not supposed to be aware of.


The Horror of Bombing and Killing: Terror in the Sky


At noon on Wednesday, February 21, Israeli planes carried out mock raids and broke the sound barrier above the Tyre region. Lea, Ali’s two-year-old sister, terrified her family when she screamed and burst into tears. “I jumped at the sound,” says her mother. Since that moment, Lea – having barely spoken her first words and not yet able to form sentences – points upward and, with scared eyes, says “above, above” and calls for “Daddy”.


Relevant videos show the terror felt by students in schools after a loud noise shook south from Tyre to Nabatieh. Ali’s teachers told him that these noises were caused by cars outside the school in an attempt to ease their fear. Five-year-old Mahdi, after returning from school in the Cadmous region, tells his mother that the teachers told them to go immediately into the classrooms. “Were you afraid?” his mother asks. He responds, “Yes,” and then continues hesitantly: “The teacher was crying, but I didn’t cry”. Mahdi’s grandmother justifies the teacher’s fear and tears: “How much does she have to bear? Even in front of the children, she couldn’t stay calm”.


In Bint Jbeil, the mother of six-year-old Hussein Dirani says that during the early days of the war, she devised new ways of dealing with the noise from the continuous bombardment coming from the border. “We were hiding what was happening from him,” she explains. She would tell Hussein white lies, and he believed them until the raid on Tuesday, December 26, shook the dense neighborhoods in the city at the center of the district: “Hussein wasn’t by my side. I shouted his name and ran to find him by the door. I hugged him. He said, ‘Mommy, what’s happening?’ I said, ‘The war’, with tears pouring”. That was the moment when Hussein learned that he is living through a war and that war means death and destruction. The six-year-old watched the funeral of the victims of that raid. Days later, the family left to seek refuge in a home near Tyre.


The mother, in her thirties, says that she is trying to spare her boy from all the news of the war. She tells him that they will return soon, once the bombing stops, and dodges his questions: “I don’t know what to say to him. I don’t want to pass the fear in my heart onto him”.


In contrast, Zeinab, who fled from Ayta al-Shab to one of the schools in Tyre, refuses to take this approach: “I have two boys. This war is a school for them to make them aware of history, their present, and the enemy lurking for us”. She says that she spares her sons (ages six and eight) from the images of blood and death, but she answers their questions clearly, “and children of this age have many questions”. The most important are “Why is Israel killing children?” and “When will we return home?” The appropriate answer is, according to her, a detailed explanation of the issue and the conflict: “I am teaching them to love justice, hate injustice, and love their land, country, and people”. However, her children’s spirits are being affected by “the circumstances caused by displacement and the hardship we’re facing”. Zeinab’s boys long for their school, Ayta al-Shab’s neighborhoods, and to play in the field and with the chickens. Today, all they have is a few meals, rationed electricity, water that is cut off most of the day, and a room containing a table, plastic chairs, and some bedding.


In all the children’s conversations here in the displacement centers, there is longing for their home and village and determination not to attend temporary schools without their classmates, who are scattered wherever the path of flight led their families. The interruption to their education has a compounded psychological tax as they have lost their ‘second home’, i.e. the school. The mother of Yasmine, from the border village of Boustane, explains that the cramped space and the distance from the fields and land have deprived her child of the vast spaces that she used as her playground. The mother dedicates much time every day to teaching her daughter to draw and write the alphabet. Nevertheless, Yasmine – who never stopped playing in the village – fights to play between the classrooms and corridors, potentially annoying the other displaced persons and forcing her mother to try to rein in her energy. The restrictions here are especially challenging as the displacement has lasted almost five months.


In these accommodation centers, the children handle the war in different ways. Ali Ghozail, a volunteer working on displaced person affairs, says that the first time the sound barrier was broken above the Tyre region, on 7 January 2024, “It terrified the children displaced from the border villages. The halls of the accommodation center were filled with their crying, and many were asking their families to leave Tyre and the region because the war had arrived here”. Conversely, some “celebrated” the breaking of the sound barrier by one plane a few days ago. “We ran to watch”, says seven-year-old Hassan with some curiosity in his eyes. His mother says that these days, he is fascinated with stories of the war and fighting even though he experienced the danger when an Israeli missile landed near him while he was playing with neighborhood friends in Ayta al-Shab. As for nine-year-old Ali, Hassan’s cousin, “The strike traumatized him. He is still suffering from the symptoms of frequent vomiting, and he spends most of his time lost in thought without speaking”. Ali’s father says that he does not know how to provide relief to his son: “Sometimes, some volunteers come and try to talk to him, to no avail. I don’t know if his condition is psychological or caused by the quality of the food, even though we all eat from it… with no appetite. But we’re getting by”.


Honesty With Children is Key to Connecting with Them


Doctor of cognitive neuroscience and clinical psychologist Albert Moukheiber says these are exactly the kind of cases that we should look out for: “Warning bells ring when we notice changes in a child’s behavior, whether they be health symptoms or behavioral ones. The first step is to talk to the child and create a safe space that allows them to talk about what’s going on in their mind, i.e. to encourage them without being pushy”.


Moukheiber says that we do not know how children digest the information that they gather by continuously monitoring their surroundings. He thinks that the key to dealing with children in wartime is, firstly, to answer all their questions honestly in a manner appropriate for their age and level of awareness.


Moukheiber focuses on the need for the family not to leave any question that the child asks unanswered while also emphasizing children’s right not to know things that they do not ask about. Explaining this difficult equation, he says, “With children, we don’t lie, but we proceed with them in accordance with their questions and give them the information they ask for”. Hence, the family should not force any additional information onto their children “because they have a right not to know, too, if they don’t ask”.


According to Moukheiber, there is no one way to deal with all children. Rather, the correct approach depends on each family and child’s situation and pre-war circumstances. However, the task of the family is to “monitor the changes that the children display in their behavior and emotional state: increased or decreased talking, increased or decreased movement, sleep, appetite, desire to play, sudden crying, involuntary urination, and sleep disruption or nightmares, among other indicators”.


When does resorting to a psychologist become necessary? Moukheiber responds that this time comes when the family is unable to prompt its children to express their inner thoughts. “Here, they can be asked whether they want to talk to someone else,” he says. He points out that psychological counseling can be provided for the children or for the parents themselves so that they can discover how they can deal with their children.


The second key to maintaining children’s mental health or minimizing the harm to it is, according to Moukheiber, to limit changes to their daily routine and provide the components of this routine as much as possible. This routine includes meal and sleep times, time spent with family and friends, and access to education. He says that the family’s responsibility is to provide normal living conditions for the children as much as possible, while acknowledging the challenges that the war and life of displacement pose.


Enass Tahini, with unconditional maternal love, turned a room in the displacement center into a warm home in order to provide her children with a situation that resembles their previous one as much as possible. She has tried to devise new ways for them to play and live their childhood pending their return one day, even if not for a long time.


Enass says that, “Motherhood in war is a difficult responsibility. My children have become all my work”. She adds, “My son Hussein constantly tells me, ‘I miss my red bed and my friend Muhammad in the village’. He asks me, ‘If we go home, will Israel bomb us?’” She says that she tries to compensate her children by providing whatever she can: “I ask him, why do you want to go back to the village now? He told me that he misses sitting in front of the television… I saved from my husband’s military salary and bought him a used television”. We see the television, which plays children’s programs during the six hours each day when electricity is available, hanging above the board of the classroom in which the family is living. Near it is the addition and subtraction table that Enass also provided: I play school with them. I perform the role of the teacher, bring laughter to their hearts, and ensure that they learn a little while they are cut off from their school in Ayta”. This classroom has become their world. Sometimes, Enass takes them to a green meadow near the accommodation center, they “long to play in Ayta and its neighborhoods and parks”.


While Enass and her husband have managed to provide a few things for their children, the fact that the majority of the displaced are cut off from their jobs and sources of income prevents them from doing even that. The television in this family’s room is merely the exception that proves the rule that deprivation prevails over the displaced here.


The Varying Effects of the War Based on Age


On 2 January 2024, twelve-year-old Rahaf Zayyat was in her home in Tayr Debba, seven kilometers east of Tyre, when she heard on the news that a raid had targeted the Dahieh suburb of Beirut. The child ran to the phone, called her older brother, and – with a quivering and teary voice – said to him, “They struck Dahieh. The war has begun. Come and take us”. Rahaf did not ask questions or await answers; rather, despite her young age, she found herself performing her own political and military analysis and concluding that this raid constituted a new escalation, total war would soon arrive, and the time to flee had come. Her brother says, “I came immediately. We sat as a family, analyzed, and made a joint decision to wait and monitor the situation”. Since 8 October 2023, Rahaf has been living to the sounds of bombardment, which echo around the walls of her home and bedroom day and night. Later, the strikes did indeed get closer to her home, hitting a house on the outskirts of Tayr Debba and a car on the main road that she takes to school every morning.


During the interview, which the family supervised, it was clear that Rahaf knew much more than anyone from her environment expected: “On TikTok, I follow the images of the children who lost their families in Gaza, and all the sights and stories of the genocide [ibada]”. Although the family constantly tries to protect its young daughter from difficult sights, Rahaf sees them via social media and hears the stories of her school friends who fled the border villages. “I’ve gotten used to the sounds of bombing and the climate of war,” she says, “but my fear is Israel’s unpredictable targeting of civilians, like what happened to Farah”. The killing of journalist Farah Omar left a wound with the girl, who had known her well: “This injustice is what I hate – the targeting of journalists just doing their job, just like the targeting of children and families safe at home here in the south and in Gaza”. As tears glisten in Rahaf’s eyes, the interview must end. Clearly, her awareness of what is happening constitutes a heavy burden upon her. But she, like others from her generation, limits her questions and searches for information from various sources by herself.


Moukheiber says that the impact of the war is more severe the older the child is because older children have greater awareness: “We know, for example, that a four or five-year-old child cannot comprehend the concept of killing and death. At eight or nine, a child is more capable of understanding it. At 11 or 12, a child’s understanding of it is complete, so the impact of the events is more severe”.


Psychological Support: Between Headlines and Reality


What role are state institutions playing with regard to children of the south today amidst the offensive? The Psychosocial Support for Children and Care Providers in Emergencies and Crises in the South (Khutwa) project is being implemented by the Social, Humanitarian, Economical Intervention for Local Development (SHEILD) with funding from Expertise France and in partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Minister Hector Hajjar launched the project from Saida on 5 January 2024. On that day, he said that, “Psychological support has been secured for the entire south”. The project’s details show that it does indeed target the governorates of South Lebanon and Nabatieh, using seven mobile clinics that tour Saida, Jezzine, and al-Rehan and from al-Zahrani to Tyre, as well as Bint Jbeil and its vicinity, Nabatieh and its vicinity, and the Marjaayoun and Hasbaiyya area. To all these regions, which constitute 20% of Lebanon’s area and are inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people (including tens of thousands displaced from their homes), the project allocates one psychotherapist, five facilitators, four social workers, and one specialist from the ministry. In other words, even if it is implemented perfectly, it will inevitably fall short of the enormous needs.


In the accommodation centers in Tyre, during our field tour, we conclude that the displaced people have not yet heard about any mobile clinics. This is corroborated by Ghozail in Tyre’s occupational school. Meanwhile,the head of social intervention programs in SHEILD Eva Alhomsi says that the project began being implemented in the middle of last January and has held group psychological support sessions for adults and children, in addition to recreational activities, and will continue for three more months. She explains that 500 children have attended these group sessions. When asked about the displaced persons in the schools, she says that the project has not headed to the accommodation centers “because other associations work in them”.


The “other associations’ work” in the accommodation centers consists of children’s activities, such as drawing, coloring, and games, run by volunteers and scouting and humanitarian associations. However, according to sources in Tyre District’s Disaster Operations Room, these activities are irregular, and their frequency has declined greatly since the start of the year. They provide room for children to let off steam, especially for those sharing the schools with those schools’ students. Per instructions from the school administrations, such children must remain confined to their rooms for most daytime hours (or all daytime hours in the case of the secondary school, which operates in the morning and evening) because these schools are simultaneously acting both as accommodation centers for dozens of families and as places of education for hundreds of children.


In conclusion, children in the south today are living not only to the sounds of Israel’s agressive bombardment but also to the images of those among them killed, those wounded in attacks on civilians, and those whose homes have been razed in the border villages. Viral images show them justifiably terrified whenever they hear a bombing or the roar of a plane at school or at home. While the scope of the bombardment and displacement expands village by village and the limits of the offensive remain unknown, a new generation is being molded by the danger and learning first-hand the bitter taste of war – a taste that has not left their parents and grandparents’ mouths for 76 years.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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