As parents, it’s been a year of difficult conversations with our children about the virus, about race and police brutality, and about a contentious election. And today, many parents are bracing themselves for another challenging discussion with their kids as protestors in Washington D.C. stormed the Capitol on Wednesday. We tapped child psychologists and experts for their advice on how to talk to children about what is happening right now.
Do bring it up
Even if your kid does not come to you with questions about these events, they are probably thinking about them, explains Dr. Zachary Kahn, clinical psychologist at a school and in private practice. “Kids of all ages are aware when something traumatic is felt and experienced,” he says. You can start the conversation by asking them, “what do you know about what’s happening? How do you feel about that?” Use open ended questions, suggests the Child Mind Institute, in order to allow your child to lead the conversation rather than vice versa.
The National Association of School Psychologists also advises grown-ups to be patient and make room for kids to talk about how they’re feeling: “Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.”
Let children know they are safe
Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe, the experts at Child Mind Institute tell us. Reassure your child that the grown-ups, including the authorities, are in control of the situation. You could say something like, “I know you may have seen some scary images on TV or heard dad getting upset on the phone, but know that we are safe in our house.” Speaking to National Geographic, family therapist Dr. Cassidy O’Brien suggested pulling out a map for those children not in the immediate vicinity. “They might perceive events as happening close by,” Dr. O’Brien says. “So you can use a map to show where events are happening and that where they are is safe.”
Validate their feelings
Let children know that it is OK to be scared or anxious or confused right now. And if they see you upset, then validate that too. Here’s the script that adult and child psychiatrist Dr. Lea Lis recommends: “Yes, I’m angry right now. I’m going to be OK, and this will pass. You don’t need to worry about me during this emotional storm. I’m an adult who can understand that sometimes people make mistakes, and I still believe this country will heal.”
Keep things age-appropriate
“Part of the job of being a parent is to acknowledge the truth,” says Dr. Kahn. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to explain what the events of yesterday mean, but parents should be prepared to clearly explain what happened based on how old your child is and what they already know.
The National Association of School Psychologists has helpful advice for how to talk to kids about violence according to their age group. For example, elementary school children need simple information balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. High schoolers will have opinions about the causes of violence and may offer ideas for how prevent it.
For young kids, this could be an opportunity to talk about our political system. “Parents will be able to explain democracy and how there are generally two main parties in the United States: the Republicans and Democrats,” says Dr. Lis. “Talk about how that can be a good thing because it creates different ideas and allows Americans to vote for different candidates.”
When it comes to very young kids, you don’t have to give them the details of why protestors are upset, pediatric psychologist Dr. Laura Gerak tells WKYC. She suggests saying something like, “There are some people at the Capitol who are really angry and they’re letting people know but I don’t agree with how they’re doing it.” Using examples of how brothers and sisters fight or conflict that happens on the playground may help younger kids understand what is going on. Dr. Gerak then recommends shifting the conversation to helpers in order to make little kids feel safe. You could do this by talking about the police and how trained they are at taking care of people, or asking kids who they would go to if something happens on the playground.
Remember that Black kids may be experiencing this differently
“Many Black kids have been left reeling because [Wednesday’s events] just validated their experience of how Black and White people are treated differently in the United States,” Dr. Kahn reminds us. Specifically, there was a shocking difference between how Black Lives Matter protestors were treated over the summer in the capital (with a massive show of police force) compared to what happened on Wednesday (a seemingly muted response). “It necessitates a conversation about the fact that we live in a world in which Black and White people are not treated in the same way and how we have work to do,” adds Dr. Kahn.
Highlight family values
Children might think that this is how everyone thinks and behaves, so it’s important that you make your own family values clear. “Educate children that just because we see politicians getting nasty or people protesting and getting violent, it doesn't define OUR values as a country or as a family,” says Dr. Lis. For example, you could say, “In our family, we are never violent, and here is why.” But she cautions parents to refrain from attacking someone’s character. “Attacking a character is not a family value,” she notes.
And it’s OK to tell your child that you don’t know why protesters behaved the way they did, Dr. Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer of KinderCare, tells us. “This is an opportunity to discuss appropriate ways to express anger or disagreement and reinforce how you handle disagreements in your family in appropriate ways,” she adds. A good way to do this with younger kids is with role play (like asking your child what she would do if she didn’t like what someone was doing or thought that someone took something of her). “Focus on how the problem gets resolved, not just how you express anger or sadness. Children (and adults) need to understand that emotions are neither good nor bad, but rather, how we act out our emotions can be positive or negative,” says Dr. Yalow.
Talk about different opinions
“Starting with the younger age group, talk about ‘good and bad ideas’ instead of ‘good and bad people,’ and add that belonging/subscribing/agreeing to different viewpoints does not make you enemies,” advises Dr. Lis. She suggests using positive role models, such as how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not agree with Justice Scalia, but they were still good friends. This helps children understand how there can be different opinions without hatred.
Stay calm and model healthy coping mechanisms
The organization Teaching Tolerance recommends a three-step process for teachers to follow called “Listen, Protect, Model.” While this is designed for educators, the advice is useful for parents, too.
- Listen: Ask good questions and listen to kids, try to understand their concerns.
- Protect: Work to make students feel safe and protected by establishing norms and guidelines for conversation, and by requiring facts and legitimate sources of information.
- Model: Demonstrate a calm demeanor and reasoned approach to conversation and disagreements. Encourage civil discourse and a sense of calm.
You can also model self-care by saying things like, “let's turn off the news for a while and go outside for a walk instead.”
Keep the conversation going
As with so many difficult topics, conversations about Wednesday’s events shouldn’t be a one-off discussion. Instead, parents can use this as a learning opportunity. “There is room for parents to model how to heal from this,” says Dr. Kahn.
Additional resources for parents
- “Scared Kids, How to Deal with Fear,” from The Child Mind Institute
- “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers,” from The National Association of School Psychologists
- “How to Talk to Kids About Violence,” from The Child Development Institute