Helping Kids Understand the Riots at the Capitol
We’re all shaken by the events in Washington, DC this week. As kids of all ages look to us for guidance, here are some ways to help them understand what’s going on and deal with any anxiety they may be feeling.
It may seem like you need to jump in and address things right away, but pausing to work through your own feelings before talking to kids about theirs is an important step. “Take time for yourself to process what has happened, how you feel, what your thoughts are — this is all exhausting and overwhelming for parents and the best thing we can do is model how we take care of ourselves first,” says Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
When you feel ready to talk, kids will benefit from an open, calm conversation. “Connect with your child and be their safe haven,” Dr. Domingues says. “Talk to them from a place of calm and security, even when you are not necessarily feeling that on the inside.” Kids look to parents to see how they should react. Modeling a calm, rational response and making space for questions will help kids feel less anxious and help your family to process the news in a healthy way.
Talking with younger kids
Younger kids are unlikely to understand what’s happening on TV, but they may still notice that something is up.
- Check in with little kids. “Seeing images on the news or hearing words like ‘taking over the Capitol’ without context might be very scary for little kids,” says Dr. Domingues. And though the fact that younger children probably don’t understand much of what’s going on may seem like a good thing, it can actually make them feel more scared. “Kids might fill in the gaps of knowledge on their own with potentially scarier misinformation. So it’s important that parents take the opportunity to talk about what is happening and not shy away from the topic.”
- Remember, kids are listening even when you’re not talking to them directly. If you need to vent your frustrations or other feelings, do it when the kids are in bed.
- Use developmentally appropriate language to answer little kids’ questions: “Sometimes adults, like kids, get very emotional and do things they shouldn’t. A lot of people got very angry because of the election results. They wanted to show that they were angry, which is okay, but the things they did were not okay.”
- Reassure kids who may have seen disturbing images of violence on TV that they’re safe.
- Emphasize the positive, too: “Our representatives knew it was very important to continue doing their work, so they went back into the building to finish, even if it took all night! This shows how important our elections are.”
Talking with school-age kids
Older kids may have some understanding of what’s going on and feel anxious or scared. Modeling a calm, rational response and helping them talk through any fears or worries they have can help.
- Give kids a chance to tell you what they saw and ask questions. It’s important to get a sense of what they’re thinking and what they already know about what’s going on. This also gives you a chance to correct any misinformation they may have heard.
- Validate their feelings: “I totally understand why this feels scary. Let’s talk about it.”
- Emphasize that what the rioters did was not effective, and that there are laws in place to ensure that there are consequences for what they did. “It’s also okay to say, ‘I’m not sure what will happen and as we find out more we can discuss together,’” notes Dr. Domingues.
- Help kids avoid black-and-white thinking. “When talking about the event, keep it about the actions, rather than giving a label to the people,” says Dr. Domingues. “It’s not bad to be Republican or to have a difference in opinion, but what was unacceptable was how they went about it.”
- Limit exposure to news. Instead, keep routines in place and try doing something as a family like taking a walk, baking a cake, or making art. Anything that helps keep everyone calm and distracted.
Talking to teenagers
For teenagers and young adults, using this as an opportunity to talk about their own rights and responsibilities can be helpful.
- Let them know that it’s normal to be angry, sad or frightened when witnessing injustice. Especially for teens who were involved in the Black Lives Matter protests, seeing this situation unfold may be very upsetting.
- Discuss appropriate ways for teens to channel their emotions and fight for what they believe in, no matter their politics. Can they get involved in community organizations? Raise money or volunteer for a cause they care about?
- Use this as an opportunity to discuss how kids are getting – and vetting – the information they see online and on TV. Where do they get their news? How do they know what information to trust? When do they give themselves space from the news?
- Open a conversation about what they can learn from these events and from the president’s actions. “Parents can encourage them to talk about what makes a good leader, what are qualities and values we would want in a leader and what a good leader would do in this situation,” Dr. Domingues suggests.
No matter their age, it’s important to talk with your children about how these events fit into bigger issues of justice, democracy, racism and white supremacy. “This is an opportunity to have an honest discussion about racism, that these two groups were not treated equally, and to know that this is an ongoing discussion,” says Dr. Domingues. “This has been happening for longer than just yesterday or the past four years — there is a history and we can talk about that.”
Dr. Domingues emphasizes that this is a chance to teach positive lessons about history as well. “We can talk about times when people have effectively communicated differences and have come together when they have had to work together. We can use movies, stories and everyday examples to show that it’s possible to effectively express anger and frustration and do it in a way that is respectful and peaceful.”