NEWS

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Attack on the Capitol

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Key Takeaways

  • Children might have trouble understanding the breach on the Capitol. This can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety.
  • Parents play an important role in reassuring children of their safety and helping them to process scary events that are covered heavily in the news.

We're facing no shortage of frightening moments in the news. This week, when a mob rushed the U.S. Capitol at the behest of the sitting president, the violent crowd breached not only hallowed ground, but the nation's already frayed sense of security.

In the wake of these events, individuals of all ages have been left with a growing sense of uneasiness. And while politics are often considered "adult matters," the reality is that children often experience even more confusion and fear around what they don't understand.

While you cannot completely shield your kids from the ugliness of the world, you can help them to process these events and restore their confidence that they are safe.

Erin O'Connor, Ed.D.

Even before children become active consumers of media, it is important for them to learn how to discern accurate from inaccurate sources, and to engage in media with an adult.

— Erin O'Connor, Ed.D.

Promote Media Literacy

Monitoring your child's consumption of the news can play an important role here. But if they have cell phones or access to social media, they're most likely already aware of what happened. They might even be asking questions. It's possible they're feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information and images coming from media outlets, individuals and accounts, alike.

"Ask your kids what they've heard or what they may know already," says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist, author, and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. "They may have some information and may be confused about what they're hearing."

If their main source of news is social media, they're consuming a mix of fact, explosive opinion, and disinformation. Media literacy is crucial.

"Even before children become active consumers of media, it is important for them to learn how to discern accurate from inaccurate sources, and to engage in media with an adult," says Erin O'Connor, Ed.D., psychologist and director of New York University's early childhood program. "This earlier, monitored engagement ensures that children develop these skills prior to their active engagement without constant adult supervision."

Remind them of the nature of sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok: Users are free to post virtually whatever they want, regardless of whether it's false or dangerous.

"Explain to your child that whatever they learn on social media is not fact-checked, and that they should not base their beliefs, ever, on what social media tries to persuade them to believe," says Tom Kersting, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Disconnected: How To Protect Your Kids From The Harmful Effects Of Device Dependency.

If your child hasn't asked you about what transpired, don't leave them out of the loop. You might want to bring it up first by asking them if they have any questions about it. You can act as a source of information they can trust.

In relaying the information around what transpired at the Capitol, be honest. However, keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to provide every detail that will only increase anxiety and fear in a young mind. Keep it simple.

"Keep your information brief and age-appropriate," Morin says. "If your child asks questions, you'll know they're interested in hearing more."

Amy Morin, LCSW

Acknowledge how you're feeling without burdening your children with adult problems. Let them know what you're doing to take care of your feelings and model healthy coping skills.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Relate and Reassure

It's important to keep in mind that the Capitol breach joins a long list of overwhelming events this past year. It's normal to feel scared yourself, and unsure of how to talk about it with your children. Sharing your own feelings, to an extent, with your child can be a valuable moment of honesty and bonding. They're likely to model their own feelings off of the way you react.

"Acknowledge how you're feeling without burdening your children with adult problems," Morin says. "Let them know what you're doing to take care of your feelings and model healthy coping skills."

Reinforcing positive thinking, emphasizing probability over possibility, and helping your child to generate coping statements like "Let's think—how many times has there been an attack this year?" are some of the strategies parents can use to reduce a child's anxiety around the news.

While it might be difficult to pull your focus from those who are misbehaving, reminding your children of the people who are working to help others can restore their confidence that they're safe. Point to professional fields that center around the well-being of others—doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers, firemen, etc.

"Explain that although some adults are making poor choices right now, there are many more adults who are focused on keeping everyone safe," Morin says.

In fact, you can reassure them that you are one of those people.

"Remind them that your job as a parent or adult in their life is to keep them safe," says Parker Huston, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and clinical director of On Our Sleeves at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. "Let them know you are there to help them understand the situation and get through it."

Amy Morin, LCSW

Discuss that it's OK to be angry and to disagree on political issues. But it's not OK to act on those feelings in a way that hurts other people.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Differentiate Feelings From Behavior

If your child is curious about the context of these events, you can use this opportunity to talk honestly and openly about feelings and behavior. And it's important to establish the difference between the two.

Explain to them that adults don't always deal with upsetting feelings in a healthy way, and the events that transpired are an example of that.

"Discuss that it's OK to be angry and to disagree on political issues," Morin says. "But it's not OK to act on those feelings in a way that hurts other people."

Empowerment

Ultimately, reinforcing your child's sense of safety is an act of empowerment. And if your child remains curious and engaged, point them toward, or join them in finding, resources that will uplift rather than perpetuate cycles of fear and anxiety.

"You can highlight ways to make a difference in their community in appropriate ways," Huston says. "Read books about activists you admire, or watch kid-friendly videos on the subject. Show them that they can be active in pushing for change without using violence or aggression."

However, it's important to continue to monitor whether your child is feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or fearful because of the media they consume. You can make adjustments that allow your child to embody the carefree mindset all children deserve.

"Encourage kids to focus on enjoying being a kid," Kersting says. "They can deal with politics when they are adults."

What This Means For You

It's normal to feel overwhelmed by events in the news, but your child will mirror your response. Holding open and honest conversation, without divulging into too much detail, can restore a sense of safety and ease your child's anxiety.

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  1. 1. Comer J, Furr J, Beidas R, Weiner C, Kendall P. Children and terrorism-related news: Training parents in coping and media literacyJ Consult Clin Psychol. 2008;76(4):568-578. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.76.4.568