How to Talk to Kids About the Capitol Riot: 11 Tips to Help Children Process the Storming of the Capitol by Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development
Since mid-afternoon on January 6, 2021, the news has focused on little else than the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Presidential certification process. We as Americans feel a wide range of emotions: shock, outrage, disrespected, embarrassment for our country, distress, powerlessness, sadness and anger.
On-screen violence, vandalism and traumatic events are never easy to discuss with your children or students; however, young people need help processing the news they have witnessed over the last 48 hours. Older children and teens will feel anxious about the antidemocratic, violent behavior and its aftermath, and confused about how a sitting President was allowed to engage in seditious behavior.
Tweens and teens may also have questions about the disparity between how the mob was treated and other recent, more peaceful protesters. The harrowing spectacle will color how some youth react to the world around them for many years to come. Specifically, children and teens might assume that this behavior enacted by adults is acceptable, and try to mimic similar violence or aggression. For other children, the treasonous example set yesterday may even preclude their engagement in democratic processes.
Here are 11 tips for how families can work through the violence displayed across living rooms this week:
- Be careful with curious eyes and ears: If you have children under 8 years old, consider watching the news privately on your laptop or cellphone to reduce the possibility of sights and sounds of violence from background TV. While it may seem harmless to keep the television news on in the background or in a room set apart from where children are playing, the violence and rhetoric surrounding the attack can be extremely frightening and anxiety-producing.
- Make this a teachable moment: No matter how old your children, tweens, teens or students are, this is a moment to discuss the importance of what happened, the historical significance of this election and its aftermath, as well as the state of our nation. Talk softly and calmly with your young children or students, using words they understand. Keep in mind that they will soak up how you are feeling and responding. Remind them about why violence is never the answer, what the social and racial justice implications of this event are, and how democracy is undermined by violence. This is a unique opportunity to discuss the importance of the balance of powers, our co-equal branches of government, national symbols and accountability. Especially for tweens and teens, it might be helpful to have these conversations casually, while throwing a ball back or forth or during a drive, for example, in case they start to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
- Reassure your kids that everyone is safe: Each conversation you have about these events should begin and end with reassurance that your children and family are safe. Let them know that our elected officials are safe, and how the police are working hard to keep our Capitol – an important symbol of our country’s free and democratic process – secure. In addition, when you talk about these difficult matters, sit somewhere neutral and comfortable, but not in the room where your child sleeps. This will ensure that your child can return to the solace of their bedrooms.
- Listen to their concerns: Young people will have questions. Whether they are curious or disturbed about the event itself, or about the safety of their loved ones, listen to what they are feeling and respond accordingly. Older children may ask questions about the difference in police responses to this event and those protesting racism over the summer. Applaud them for recognizing the injustice, and discuss how they can propagate equity while speaking out safely and effectively. (For more tips about talking to your kids or students about racial justice and healthy civic engagement around race relations, see our racial justice tips here).
- Pay attention: Watch for signs of anxiety about what is happening or detrimental fixation on the news. Red flags include abnormal acting out, stomachaches, under-or over-eating, headaches, difficulty sleeping, inability to turn off the news or to look away despite negative consequences, replacing normal, healthy behaviors with news, watching countless hours of news coverage and/or aggressive behavior. If you see any of these signs, even if they are portrayed as misbehaving, do not move immediately into punishment mode. Get to the root of the problem through conversation and reassurance. Anxiety and psychological distress from this event may stay with children for a long time; be vigilant as you observe their behavior and seek professional help, if needed.
- Put your oxygen mask on first: Take stock of your own feelings and worries. Before you can help your children or students process these events, you have to work through them yourself. Take the time to learn the facts from accurate, reliable sources (see tips for spotting misinformation here) and discuss your reactions with other adults in private spaces. Process your emotions and appropriate responses before starting the conversation with your children or students.
- Explain that violence is never the answer: It is imperative that you reiterate as often as possible that violence in any form – from a slap to a gunshot to a push – is never the answer. This message must ring loud and clear. When we have disagreements with siblings, classmates or others, whether those disagreements are about who the President should be or about not liking someone’s shoes, we have to use our words to work through them, not our bodies, tools or weapons. Ask kids how they feel when someone hurts them, and remind them that “in this family, we promise never to make anyone feel like that.” Discuss how bullying, encouraging other people to be bullies and talking badly about people are also behaviors that will not be tolerated and that if anyone ever bullies or hurts them, they should tell a family member, teacher or trusted adult.
- Talk about consequences: Remind kids that there are consequences for our actions. Protesters got in trouble for the violence they incited; there were arrests and people even died. Discuss what the consequences are for violent and aggressive behavior in your house or classroom. Just as those who went to jail must give up things they enjoy to pay their penance, perhaps when we hit our brother or our friends we have to go sit in our rooms and write an apology letter instead of playing.
- Give your kids a break: These conversations are not easy. The images we are seeing across our screens are not simple to digest. It’s OK if kids need to take a break from the conversation or from the room. The anxiety caused by these conversations and watching scenes of real-life violence might result in a restlessness that a nice walk or throwing a ball might help dissipate.
- Take a screen detox: Take this opportunity to turn off the screens and spend time together as a family. Especially in times like these, children need tangible examples of your care and comfort. Taking a break from the news coverage or other violent images, like in some video games, will help everyone take a deep breath and remember what is most important. Some children may have a tendency to imitate what they are seeing, especially if trusted and revered adults are engaging in those behaviors. Taking a break and encouraging positive actions might be critical for your children’s or students’ long-term behavior and emotion management.
- Tell stories of kindness: In the midst of fear, anxiety and injustice, there is always room for hope, joy and kindness. Be intentional about sharing stories of the good in the world, like those who served and protected the members of Congress. Those who are there today cleaning up and putting our Capitol back together. Those who are checking in on each other and taking care of one another. Talk about kindness and joy unrelated to what happened at the Capitol. Encourage each member of your family to think about something that made them smile today and to find a way to make someone else smile. Consider reading a feel-good story or watching a news segment that features good people doing great things for each other.
While we are shocked and appalled by this week’s events, we can rest assured that after the violence and destruction, our kids witnessed perseverance and the triumph of justice and democracy. This conversation will be ongoing, and families have a tough road to walk ahead – but we are in this together.
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