January 9: Talking With Children About the Events in Washington, DC
I’m writing with a heavy heart to share some thoughts regarding how to talk with children about the incredibly disturbing events that took place in Washington this week. Most adults I’ve spoken with are struggling to process their own feelings about what happened, which makes it especially difficult to figure out which words to use when we talk with our children.
It’s important to begin by acknowledging that it is valid and completely understandable if you are overwhelmed and deeply distressed by what you are watching and reading, particularly as everyone is trying to comprehend these events against the backdrop of already being exhausted and drained by coping with the pandemic. The ubiquity of news coverage and the ability to watch events unfold on our phones or doom scroll social media platforms can intensify the big reactions many of us are having.
In the midst of this chaos, how do we talk with our children about what is happening? For children of any age, begin by asking them what they have seen or watched and what they know so that you have some context for understanding what they might have seen on screens or overheard in conversations amongst adults or older siblings. Then think about how you have been processing information and reacting to the news over the past few days. If you have been glued to your phone I would acknowledge that, then I recommend that you make a plan to take some time away from your phone this weekend: perhaps commit to an hour each day that you will turn your phone off and put it away. If you had strong reactions to the news and your children have witnessed those reactions, in an age appropriate way explain your feelings to your children and reassure then that you are not upset with them and that your reactions are not their fault.
Here are some additional thoughts, age-by-age:
For toddlers and preschoolers:
Focus on feelings – ask questions, and reflect back what you hear: “When Nana said ‘We are under attack,’ you were crying. I imagine that felt really scary.”
Acknowledge your own increased focus on current events: “I know I was on my phone a lot this week and sometimes I was super stressed. I love you very much and I am not upset with you.”
Clarify that the most important job parents have is to keep children safe: “It is scary to hear that adults were acting out of control. There were also a lot of helpers who worked hard to keep people safe, and in our house it is my most important job to keep you safe.”
For school aged children:
As above, begin by asking what they have seen and what they know, then clarify mis-information and provide perspective: “So you heard there were tens of thousands of violent rioters. It’s so upsetting that anyone behaved this way, but those numbers aren’t correct.”
Talk about feelings:
Ask questions: “How are you feeling about what you saw?”
Reflect back what you hear: “Sounds like it was especially disturbing when you saw people screaming and smashing windows.”
Encourage empathy: “How do you think your friends are feeling, especially friends from different backgrounds and friends of different races?”
Some older children in this age group may want to process and reflect on how the events in Washington were treated differently than the events this past summer around the Black Lives Matter protests.
Remind children that the lawmakers came back to the capitol after the attacks and certified the results of the election.
For most teens I know, the bulk of the news they consume is shared on social media. In my conversations with middle school and high school students this week, I have heard about some astonishing mis-information they gleaned from social media. If your teen shares mis-information, gently help them think about evaluating the sources they use to follow the news. Remind teens that TikTok is not a reliable source of news about most topics.
Try to really focus on listening to your teen without judgment. Inquire about what they have watched and seen, what they have read, and how they are feeling, and let them talk and process. Expect a series of shorter conversations rather than a single long discussion.
Ask questions to help your teen develop perspective and to support and encourage critical thinking. For example:
Do you think the events in Washington would have gone differently if the rioters had been Black?
How was the police response different from the response to the Black Lives Matter protests?
How was the news coverage different? What is the role of race in news coverage?
Be sure to check in with your teen on a regular basis to ask how they are feeling in light of the riots. Encourage breaks from social media and make a specific plan with your teen about spending time doing something relaxing and enjoyable this weekend.
Remember that nobody is going to have the perfect parenting response to these events – it simply isn’t possible. Try to focus on nurturing and supporting your children and being gentle with yourself.