The Psychological Price of Israeli Kids Growing Up Near Gaza

Children suffering from long-term PTSD are failing to recover as trauma of Gaza rockets keeps repeating itself

Sharon Kalderon and her son Ron in Kfar Saba, Israel, May 4, 2019.
Meged Gozani

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The Qassam rocket that fell in Kibbutz Sufa on the Gaza border in April 2008 has long been forgotten by the public, but its echoes are still clearly being heard in the Kalderon family home.

The family’s youngest, Ron, was four when the rocket blew up in the yard near his preschool. He hadn’t managed to get into the building and he witnessed the fall. Since then he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; he has repeated anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, and lots of therapies.

“He wasn’t hurt physically, but he was wounded emotionally,” says his mother, Sharon. “These last 11 years of his life have been no picnic.”

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The rocket attack resonates at home almost every day. Ron can’t sleep at night without psychiatric drugs, and he is dependent on drugs during the day as well. In school he studies in a small class with a dedicated assistant, and he only learned to read in fifth grade. “In school he hears the helicopters and the tanks along the fence,” explains Sharon.

The Kalderons are now in Kfar Saba, at Sharon’s mother’s house. “We’re coping, like everyone,” she says. She says she’s frequently asked why they’ve remained on the kibbutz. “First of all, it’s our home,” she says. “We’ve lived here more than 25 years and we’ve raised our children here. It’s also Ron’s home, it’s what he knows.” And in any case, the trauma is so deeply embedded that it isn’t linked to a specific place; the family traveled in Thailand for a month and he had an anxiety attack there, too.

What’s more, leaving the kibbutz would be too difficult. Sharon has limited employment options because she must work at a job where she can be available for Ron at any given moment. “We’ve put our lives on hold, because we’ve become parents of a boy with post-trauma,” she says.

An Israeli woman holds a baby as they take cover while a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, during cross-border hostilities, in a protected area inside Barzilai hospital the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon May 5, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Behind the phrase “anxiety victim” hides a lengthy and complex reality that the general public has a hard time understanding. The injury isn’t visible, which is part of the difficulty.

“Ron looks like a regular kid; he doesn’t have horns or a tail,” says Sharon. “When I tell people about his situation, they say, ‘But he looks fine.’ Obviously he looks fine, and there are days when he’s very happy and active. But there are days that he isn’t, and on those days his environment doesn’t see him. There are days when he gets up in the morning and says to me, ‘Ma, I can’t get up.’ And he really can’t. He’s hurting, a hurt that comes from fear and not from a health problem. Anyone who hasn’t experienced this can’t understand.”

The agencies that were supposed to provide professional support also had difficulty understanding the problem. “The National Insurance Institute, the welfare system, the educational system, none of them knew how to deal with this in the beginning,” Sharon says.

“Now they understand more, but there’s room for improvement. We’re taking care of Ron, while also learning ourselves and teaching the system how to deal with him.” Despite the difficulties, Sharon says she’s optimistic. “Without that we wouldn’t be here today. We are grasping our optimism with both hands.”

The Education Ministry’s Psychological Service is preparing now to support those children who’ve been living with the sirens. This isn’t personal therapy for anxiety victims; for that there are five Hosen (“Resilience”) centers in Sderot and in other Gaza border towns, which provide psychological assistance during routine times as well as during emergencies. The Education Ministry is primarily instructing teachers how to present the harsh reality to the children.

“Adults naturally want to protect children and not expose them to evil, but that’s impossible,” says the Psychological Service’s Dr. Yochi Siman-Tov, who is responsible for dealing with stress and crisis. “Children are anyway exposed to reality through the news and social networks, and the concern is that their imagination will fill in the missing details and create a picture much scarier than what’s really happening.” To this end, teachers are taught how to explain the reality without causing unnecessary anxiety.

Siman-Tov says that parents and teachers play an important role in emergency situations. They instruct the school and preschool teachers to keep in touch with the children even when there’s no school, and give them tips on how to conduct these conversations. “It’s important to maintain a continuity of normal life within the chaos,” she says. “When there’s a connection with an adult who knows the child in his daily life, the child understands that not everything is broken.”

Siman-Tov also notes that most children recover from a one-time traumatic event. “With the natural emotional resources and with the help of one’s surroundings, recovery is possible,” she says. “When the person who’s with you is relying on you to get better, the chances of recovery are greater.”

However, when the trauma repeats itself, recovery becomes more complex. With every round of escalation in the south, the service reminds educators how to spot signs of PTSD. “After a child is exposed to difficult sights, it’s natural that during the first few days he will have serious fear, problems concentrating and trouble sleeping,” she says.

If after a few days the symptoms fade, even if it’s gradual, than the process is going in a positive direction. If the symptoms haven’t moderated after two weeks, a professional specializing in PTSD should be consulted.