How did mother’s instinct work in captivity? What was the first thing that the mothers asked when they arrived at the hospital? How do they intend to deal with the extraordinary situation for the young children, and what will they remember about it? A senior psychologist at Schneider Children’s who treated the returnees with all the insight, and also: what she and the teams endured at the moment of truth when the children arrived.

Precisely a week since the last child was discharged from the department for captive returnees at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, which treated 19 children, 7 mothers and 1 grandmother, Deganit Ben Nissan, Director of Psychological Services in the Institute of Children Development at the hospital, has no voice. “The body reacts apparently,” she says, “the two weeks that the returnees stayed in the hospital was very intense. A day later, I already had no voice, I was unable to speak”.

Ben Nissan is a member of the limited team of three psychologists who received and treated the small children when they returned from captivity. She is also a member of the team designated to treat evacuees of Kibbutz Kfar Aza who are currently staying in Shefayim. But her duties did not begin at that moment. Weeks beforehand, she and others involved in the mission, read, studied, researched, planned and attempted to tailor every tiny detail – from the questions they might ask the returnees to the type of toys to place in the room. Moreover, one who has dealt over many decades with treating children and trauma, remains open-mouthed at this unfathomable situation that none of us ever experienced in our lives.

“It is impossible to talk about one kind of emotion in this scenario, rather the full gamut of emotions and emotional strengths. It is an experience, actually a string of experiences, which create very strong and intense emotions. There is a sense of privilege on both the personal and the professional level. I was privileged to be in this place. There were exciting moments and there were painful moments, but it was enormously empowering to be present during all of these,” she says.

“If I need to point to one emotion, I choose the amazing behavior of the captive mothers with their children, and following their return. Even in the most difficult moments, the mothers were focused on their small children, both in the safe rooms and in captivity. Mothers acted through instinctive understanding that they had to protect the soul of the children and not only their physical bodies. They did this in the most astounding manner, each one in her own way. They were engrossed with what to do to reduce the children’s fear and minimize the threat. There wasn’t one mother who did not talk about the necessity to protect their innocence. Their biggest fear was that their childhood innocence would be affected. This entire experience was an encounter of monstrous evil that is immeasurable. When we are speaking about such small children, we don’t want to expose them to this. All the mothers protected their children so that their innocence and their beliefs would not be affected. And in the majority of cases, they succeeded.

“Even in these most difficult moments, the mothers’ caring was aimed at the young children, whether in the safe rooms or in captivity. Mothers intuitively understood what to do and did this incredibly well, each in their own way.”

How did they accomplish this?

“It is impossible to conceal the reality of course from children so young, but they were very focused on that. It is important to remember that the parent is a basic communication figure, and children’s trust is built on this bond. They accomplished this creatively and with sensitivity. Every parent uses his/her own narrative. This greatly protects children in real-time, in the safe room and in captivity, as well as when it is necessary to explain to them where they are. There was constant thought how to make the children feel secure, how to protect their safety and their health such as saving their food for the children. To keep them busy. Think, just to be with a child in a closed room, and most parents were with more than one child, without games or toys, without anything. It is unbelievable.

“The young children’s key resilience in captivity came from the parents and adults with them, and the strength and security they conveyed. Even those children without parents had an adult who functioned like a parent for them. They made sure to say for instance that they were safe here, and while outside it was dangerous, inside it was safe. They also repeatedly told them that it would end and they would return home. They kept up hope and optimism. And this also gave meaning to the parents themselves who had to muster their strength and energy in order to function.

“We saw the children over several days, and there were those who were discharged after two days, others after ten days. We noted their recovery from day to day. The first morning was not the same as the second morning. It was remarkable. Young children have an incredible ability to recover both mentally and physically. Again, each parent or adult who was with them had a central role to play, and the embrace from the community and family was as important. When they returned to Israel, there were those who had imagined it as a birth experience. There was a pregnancy alert, waiting, anticipation and preparation, and in the end it happened.”

Promises that were Impossible to Promise

Ben Nissan describes other moments as well. “There was no night and no day. There were successful and less successful days. We tried all the time to identify distress and simply just be there all the time. There were parents who told us that it was enough just to see us standing at the door. It was necessary to allow them to choose and to give them the ability to choose – what and how they wanted. Of course, there were symptoms. There were children who displayed more need and did not allow parents to move away from them, children who awoke at night and had nightmares, children who were afraid to leave the room during the first or second days. We took them in our arms and showed them that everything was fine, that here they could go out, that we were in Israel. Gradually, we saw them moving a distance away, and even playing.”

In your opinion, what awaits them in the future?

“Without doubt they have a long road ahead, but I believe in them. Parents asked whether their children would remember anything. The question is not “if” but “how”. We know that even infants recall experiences, they are registered on a physical level, the physical or the sensory memory. For example, a frightening noise, even if its cause is unknown. Physical experiences are registered on a higher level than verbal ones. If we can describe the event, it helps to overcome the traumatic experience. One of our aims in therapy is to speak the events, talk about the unspoken.

“Regarding the parents, in the majority of cases, it was necessary to change the narrative. When they were in the safe rooms, they still did not know exactly what was happening, and had to give many explanations to the children. Their entire lives changed. They long for the room, the toy, all that they had. The parents had to explain and promise them what they could not promise. It was necessary to convey bad news upon their return from captivity about their loved ones who were injured. The trauma has not finished and we are still within it. The narrative is being written all the time.

“The parents also need to work on themselves. If the child is young, the treatment is didactic for both parent and child together. Because truly for small children, the parent is part of the therapy, through whom they experience and process the trauma.”

Restore Their Faith in Humanity

Ben Nissan knows well about parental function in crisis situations. On normal days in the hospital, she is exposed to a variety of traumas, medical and otherwise. “Our psychologists in the Institute of Child Development undertake developmental assessment – disorders, delays, autism, emotional conditions and more. We accompany families with prematurely born infants which is also a trauma at the beginning of life, medical problems such as cardiac surgeries and so on.” Ben Nissan is also a member of the Committee for Children at Risk in the hospital, which deals inter alia with injuries in the family. She also lectures at Reichman University and in Tel Aviv, trains students, residents, and psychologists, and treats patients in her clinic.

“One of the most significant experiences is working with parents on a daily basis. There are many times that we must convey bad news, tell parents that the child suffers from a disorder. This is a huge blow for them and it is hard all over again every time. We gain experience and skills but this is always very difficult,” she says.

And this event is still much more different than all other traumas. How did you prepare for it?

“Absolutely. Different in content, essence, intensity. On a personal level, the events were accompanied with feelings of enormous pain. To hear first-hand about such horrific things and tragedies. This is not one trauma, but a rolling trauma, a collection of traumas – hours in a safe room with shootings, explosions and fires, people being kidnapped, and then to see the expressions of war – the injured, murdered, those held in captivity. Some returned and discovered they had lost loved ones, and everything in such a short space of time.”

How do you begin to intercede about all this with children? How can you restore their faith?

“Firstly, it is vital to intervene. This is almost taken for granted, but it is not. It is crucial to talk with the children, what is not always obvious. Always be faithful to the truth, not to embellish the truth and not to say incorrect things, but in a way that is appropriate to their age, their language and their ability to internalize. Young children don’t need long explanations, but short and to the point. It is important that we are open to questions that arise and are prepared to give answers. If we don’t have an answer, we can say, ‘you ask an important question, I want to think about it and then I will answer you.’ It is possible to take one’s time, think about it and even consult with others, that is fine. We must convey a message of assurance and optimism, we are with you, everyone together.

“Even mothers who returned from the hell asked immediately how we were going to deal with the children, what was important to say and what not. This event affected all of us, our faith in the good of the world, in authorities, in networks, and definitely for those who endured this personally. A large part of our meetings with them was to reestablish a basic trust in humanity, precisely what they told us. It is easier for children when there is a parent or adult whom they trust. Therefore, it was so important to intercede, transcribe and be with them.

“It is also important to pay special attention to the very young children who are at an age which can sink slightly beneath the radar. We very much want to protect them from the horror and pain. We think that they don’t understand or that they won’t remember because they don’t talk yet. So, it is vital to pay attention to these children, both from the standpoint of their captivity as well as at home.

Do you have any support? Who helps you?

We have a very strong base of support from our colleagues. We hold targeted meetings where we share our feelings and what has transpired. These are team support groups which are very important and are held regularly. This also occurs normally and more so now. One cannot endure this alone.”

When did you really cry the last time? And how do you sleep at night?

“I am choked up all the time, and many things make me cry. The song sung by Shai Li Atari for instance, and overall, exposure to tragic cases. The pain is immense, but sometimes emotional tears also fall, such as when the helicopter landed the first night and we stood at the window and saw them disembarking. But mainly, when I hear stories of the bravery of the returnees. Like scenes in a movie. At night, I am so exhausted that I sleep well. The shorter the nights, the less I dream, I simply fall asleep from weariness and emotional fatigue.”

And what do you do to calm down? What makes you feel good?

“Sitting opposite the blue of the sea with good friends every Shabbat morning calms me immensely and makes me feel good. I really feel that this recharges me, and I do not cancel, whatever the weather. “