On Wednesday, what was meant to be a routine part of the democratic process turned violent and uncertain as a group of rioters attacked the Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it was a terrifying and distressing scene marked by images we will not soon forget. As even informed adults struggle to process the events of January 6, it’s important to remember that children are doing the same. Our job as parents is to help them make sense of the world around them, so I spoke with three experts about how best to approach discussing the news with children.
Here are some key take-aways from those conversations and a few things to think about when navigating difficult or scary news with your children.
Commit to the Conversation and Find Resources to Help
While it’s natural to want to protect your children from difficult things—and the recommendation is typically to wait until they are around age seven to expose them to much news—all three experts agreed it’s best to face something like what happened on January 6 head on. As clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, who offered a helpful five-point strategy for talking to kids about hard truths on her instagram account, put it, “What’s scariest to a child is noticing changes in his environment and not having an adult talk to him about it.”
Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky, said it’s a conversation that parents of all ages should have, even if it feels too soon. “It’s good to help kids understand things before they are really able. Often kids are already thinking about these things and trying to come up with their own explanations, so it’s important for parents to step in and help.”
“For the youngest kids, you have to be the mediator between the news and how they interpret it,” said Diane Jones Lowrey, Senior Director, Community Partnerships at Common Sense Media, which offers resources designed to help parents do just that. She suggested this guide for talking to kids about the violence at the Capitol and “
Manage Your Own Feelings First
Every expert I spoke to reiterated how in tune children are with their parents’ feelings. It’s okay to be upset in front of your child, of course, but it’s important to acknowledge and explain those feelings. Dr. Becky Kennedy suggests something like, “You might have noticed that I've been feeling a bit, well... uneasy. You are right to notice that. Two things are true: Mommy feels sad and Mommy is strong and able to take care of you.”
Dr. Brown suggests talking through how you are processing something yourself. “You might say, ‘Wow, this feels really scary, but I can see it is going to be okay,' or ‘I’m feeling less anxious now.’ Doing your own work to calm down and letting them see that is really good scaffolding for kids.”
Follow Your Child’s Lead
Parents know their children best and conversations will obviously vary based on age, but it is always a good idea to start by asking questions about what the child has seen and how they feel.
It’s important to realize that very young children understand the world in concrete terms and may have a hard time understanding that what is happening is not right outside their door, so your first priority is to make them feel safe. “The biggest distinction to make (based on age) is between concrete ideas and abstract ideas,” said Dr. Brown. Younger children will not understand concepts like democracy, for example, but will require a straightforward explanation.
For older children and teens, said Lowrey, “You can ask more probing, critical questions about what they saw and if they can compare it to anything else in history because that will allow them to put this incident into context.” You might also ask how their friends feel about it because that is a large part of how they form opinions.
Find the Teachable Moments
All three experts encouraged parents to use events like what happened on January 6 to inform their children about the government and their role as citizens. In addition to the basic civics lesson of what lawmakers were doing and that this happens every four years, Dr. Brown suggested a focus on how everyone has a voice and learning to use our voice in the right ways.
Another key lesson, said Lowrey, is that “despite the protest and the violence, the lawmakers came back and conducted the business they were there to do and they finished their task because they understood the importance of it.”
Reassure Them They Are Safe
Conversations like this may not always go as scripted, but the most important thing is for your children to know that they are safe and you are safe. In this case, Dr. Brown said, you also want to stress that, “The rules of our country are important and there’s a lot of people that will make sure we follow the rules.”
Lowrey said, “It goes back to reassuring the kids that you are there for them and they are cared for, so they understand that even if this is a chaotic situation, they have someone that has their back and that’s you.”