We were all shocked and scared yesterday, as we watched television coverage of a mob taking over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
What does it mean for our children, to see such frightening scenes of violence at a time of such division and anger?
This post is not about politics; it’s about the things children hear and say. How do we, as parents and teachers, help them sort it out? How do we help those who are frightened and don’t feel safe – especially when we ourselves feel the same way?
Here are six strategies for talking to your kids in this angry and political environment:
1. Start by listening. Before rushing to explain, ask questions, listen to the answers and ask more questions. When your child repeats things he has heard – “They took over the Capitol,” or “The election was stolen” – explore exactly what he thinks those words mean.
2. Try to uncover misconceptions and provide context. For adults, the transition in government happens every four years. For young children, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Their understanding of it will be based on they way adults around them react. They’ll need help knowing which parts of this process were normal and which were not.
In general, children are exposed to much more than they are ready to understand. They hear adults talking, they perceive how we feel and they catch bits of information on the news that seem unfamiliar and strange.
If an adult doesn’t step in gently to help them make sense of it, they’ll try to make sense of it on their own, based on their limited experience in the world.
3. Understand a child’s concerns in the context of her world rather than yours. Younger children worry most about their parents’ well being. It’s scary to see a parent very upset or very angry. Ask if she noticed you were upset and if it scared her. Then reassure her that even though you had big feelings, you are OK and nothing bad is going to happen.
Older children may be able to ask more complicated questions about what the’ve seen on TV or heard grownups talking about. Age and vocabulary will determine how much more they’re able to understand. But the ultimate message can be that they shouldn’t have to worry about it – the grown ups will be taking care of what happens and how the problems are solved.
Adolescents need to be able to talk with adults about their various questions and ideas about world affairs without it becoming a debate or argument. Just a few reality oriented comments and factual questions here and there are often sufficient to help ground them as they move forward in their thinking. They may project anxiety about themselves and worries about being out of control by criticizing everything in government and how adults are handling things – and this is healthy. What isn’t helpful is when they’re left to work out these things alone or among themselves without the grounding of safe, caring and respectful adults. That’s when talk can escalate and adolescents begin to act out.
4. Be judicious with punishment and discipline. Children who post threats, talk meanly to peers or engage in unsafe behavior are often doing so in order to ward off their own sense of vulnerability in the face of the unknown. The first priority is to stop the behavior before it creates harm to them or anyone else. After that, help them give voice to their fears in a situation where they feel safe, perhaps at the family dinner table, or in quiet conversation one-on-one. Then, after showing compassion and acknowledging their own concerns, determine what consequences are appropriate for their behavior – with a sincere apology to anyone they’ve mistreated often being the most important thing they can do.
5. Reduce media exposure. Shelter children from the media as much as possible. When they are exposed, help them understand that everything people say on TV is not necessarily true, and that watching people yell at each other or do mean things doesn’t help anyone figure out how to solve problems.
6. Be prepared to discuss it again. Don’t assume all is resolved after discussing a worry. Children are constantly re-thinking everything you say and do, everything they see and hear. Stay alert for signs that they’re ready for the next dialogue.
Looking for more insight? Here are two more articles we can suggest:
- When little ones learn of bad things in the world: Blog post by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers on the questions young children really have – though they may have trouble finding the right words. And how to answer those questions simply and lovingly.
- Helping children with tragic events in the news: Advice from Mr. Rogers