By Tracey Dowdy
Regardless of where on the political spectrum you fall, I think we can all agree that the events in Washington D.C. yesterday may be disturbing to our children. Seeing or hearing about a mob of violent protesters storming the U.S. Capitol Building coupled with the stress of a global pandemic and the challenges it has created for families may generate fears and questions you’re unsure how to address. It’s perfectly normal for children to have difficulty processing these events – it’s difficult for us as adults.
Honesty is crucial. Don’t be tempted to gloss over or lie about what has occurred. Deception leads to distrust, and your children need to know that above all else, they are safe with you. Cassidy O’Brien, a family therapist at San Diego Kids First says, “Parents are often tempted to lie as a first response, because they don’t want their child to worry or that they shouldn’t be burdened with this, and that’s a bad approach. It’s bad to overwhelm children with too much information, but you can tell them the truth in simple ways and use their questions to guide you on how much to share.”
Remind your children that as a parent, your primary job is to protect them and that you will always look out for them. Validate their feelings by sharing your own. Let them know you too were unsettled by yesterday’s events but that these feelings are normal.
Open the conversation by asking them what they’ve heard. Though your children may not have sat down to watch the news with you, there’s every possibility they’ve overheard your conversation or heard about it from classmates or older siblings. Be calm, approachable, and open-minded. And because you’re trying to frame the discussion by considering their maturity level and what information they may have, let them take the lead. Clear up misconceptions or misinformation, and if you don’t know the answer, simply say, “That’s a good question. Let’s figure it out together.” Refer to Common Sense Media’s list of age-based news resources for kids that puts current events in language and context that is appropriate for them.
Because children’s lives are rule-based and directed at learning what’s right and wrong, seeing adults behave as we observed yesterday might be confusing for your children. Part of becoming a mature adult is learning how to manage our emotions – the good ones and the bad ones. Explain that sometimes adults have feelings that they allow to spin out of control, and when that happens, bad things can happen, and poor choices are made. Remind them that good people sometimes make bad choices, and who we choose to associate with can get us into trouble as well. This is an excellent time to discuss accountability for one’s actions and the consequences of breaking the law. Do try to avoid editorializing unless your children are old enough to have a more in-depth discussion. Your goal is to inform and reassure, not persuade and recruit.
Be aware some children are reluctant to acknowledge negative emotions. “A lot of kids are growing up thinking anxiety, anger, sadness are bad emotions,” says Stephanie Samar, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. But naming and accepting these emotions is “a foundation to problem-solving how to manage them. For younger children, describing your own feelings and modeling how you manage them is useful. They hear you strategizing about your own feelings, when you’re nervous or frustrated, and how you’re going to handle it, and they can use these words,” she says. Beyond conversation, help them identify events or conversations that spike their anxiety. Be mindful of what you say in front of them and be vigilant about what they see online. “It’s not keeping it from them but making sure you’re part of it,” Cassidy O’Brien, a family therapist at San Diego Kids First says. “That way, you can keep control of the conversation and be aware of what they’re getting.”
Finally, remember this isn’t a one and done conversation. 2020 was a year that seemingly moved from one disaster to the next. Your child’s emotions may already be running high, so stay in tune with changes in mood and behavior and be willing to unpack current events and their impact on your children again and again. If you feel their struggle is more than you can manage together, reach out, and have them talk to a trained child therapist. Their mental health is no less important than physical health. If you’re not sure where to begin, Psychology Today allows you to search for a therapist or psychiatrist in your area, and Mental Health America has resources to ensure both you and your child can move forward unafraid.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.