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Talking To Kids About the Attack at the U.S. Capitol

In the face of a riot, violence, and chaos, how can parents help kids process?

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Images of a mob storming through the U.S. Capitol building, and Senators hiding from potential gunfire broke into daytime television and filled social media on Wednesday, January 6. Talk of the president playing a part in the events and some law enforcement allegedly aiding the group in its pursuit has followed — and it’s unlikely this information passed over your kids without impact.

Eldridge Greer, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and president of Whole Child Whole Adult Counseling and Consulting, advises parents and teachers to speak with kids honestly about this week’s events, and in a way that ensures they feel safe.

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“Having the ability to be nuanced in the conversation is really critical,” he says.

Start and End With Emotions

First, he encourages parents to do their own research and self-reflection. Greer recognized how being an African American male contributed to his own emotional and logical understanding of the scene.

“As a parent, or a clinician, or a teacher, I have to be very clear what feelings are coming up for me before having the conversations with (kids).”

When you’re ready, be proactive with children, and start by asking about their emotions. Many are experiencing fear from the images on the T.V. and a general feeling of uncertainty or lack of safety as the nation goes through COVID-19, transition of power, and racial reckoning. Some may experience retraumatization, particularly if they’d participated in this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and have been retriggered by the police response; or if they’ve had any exposure to gun violence, such as school shootings, and are triggered by people ducking for cover.

“One thing I urge parents to stay more focused on is the emotional connection,” says Greer. “Don’t move away from it with your kids until they are ready to move away from it. Keep coming back to it every day because kids are getting new information, they’re talking to other people, they’re having conversations in school, so it’s not a one and done conversation. The feelings they had on January 6 are not the same they’ll have today, or next week.”

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Checking in multiple times also provides opportunities to correct misinformation, normalize sharing feelings, and provide a sense of security in the home. 

Be Honest About What’s Going On

When it comes to the facts of the riot, keep kids’ developmental learning in mind; kids in preschool through elementary school will have different knowledge and reactions than kids in middle school who will have different knowledge and reactions than those in high school. For littles, use imagery or comparisons they can understand to illustrate the emotions of the rioters and other individuals involved. Older kids might be able to handle more details about the scene and use examples of news coverage to discuss what they see and hear, how it’s being covered, and what they think about it. Feel out how they’re handling the violence and upheaval of security in the scenes, and reassure them of your plans to keep them safe.

Considering this moment’s historical context, Greer cautions parents against telling kids, “We’re not surprised this would happen,” or, “We know bias and supremacy exist so we’re not surprised this has happened.” While it’s never too early to start talking with kids about systemic or structural issues in society, some adult analyses of the situation could damage a youth’s sense of safety.

Greer suggests talking about the history of America and its consequences for today honestly, but also reminding kids: “This is not what all of America is, or what America could be.” He also advises parents to emphasize their family’s ability to face, talk about, and deal with situations of racism, classism, sexism, violence, and insurrection.

“If kids can hear that kind of “both/and” message,” he says, they can understand atypical events will occur and they can feel safe and manage through it. This could help them experience the event, see injustices and double standards with how it’s being addressed, and still move forward, especially for kids in families of color who have gone through this kind of psychological trauma, says Greer.

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If a child is showing signs of distress, such as changes in sleeping, eating, or communication, address their emotional need by distancing them from the news and finding direct support through counseling if possible.

Keep Practicing

Parents shouldn’t feel like they have to have it all under control; most kids need to have a sense their parents are feeling some of the things they are, says Greer. Showing an openness to observing, learning, discussing, and resting lays a foundation for a child’s psychological safety and growth.

Related Stories: 

Talking to Kids About School Violence

Fostering Anti-Racism in the Family

Talking to Kids About Racism

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