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Talking to your kids about the violence at the Capitol

Like all of you, we were horrified at what unfolded on January 6, 2020. The images and news coverage was something that we never believed we would have witnessed -- rioters scaling the Capitol building while the people inside scrambled for safety. As adults, it was difficult to process and comprehend. In fact, it was absolutely frightening.

If we felt this way, then what about our children? It’s definitely been a difficult couple of days for them. But, here are some ways that you can talk with them about what happened and how to manage their feelings.

Reassure them that they’re safe.

It’s not uncommon for children to be concerned about their own safety when facing chaotic or scary news. They’re probably also worried about the wellbeing of friends and family. As their parent, you need to reassure them that they are safe and that you will always protect them.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ignore their feelings. Let them express how they feel and tell them that it’s appropriate. “Normalize and validate how they’re feeling,” says Cassidy O’Brien, a family therapist at San Diego Kids First. “You can say, ‘You’re feeling scared about this. Me, too. This is scary and it’s normal to feel that way.’”

O’Brien also suggests that you give children a feeling of control. For example, you could ask them what other information they would like to learn and you can research it together, such as a map.

“They might perceive events as happening close by,” O’Brien says. “So you can use a map to show where events are happening and that where they are is safe.”

Limit media exposure and provide facts.

It’s understandable that you want to stay informed. But, even just leaving the TV on in the background can have negative effects, mainly on how you and your child interact. What’s more, while you may think that they aren’t paying attention because they’re playing or working on homework, they can still hear frightening words like “riot,” “violence,” or “death.”

While you can not control what is being said or reported on in the media, you do have control over the amount of information your children are consuming. For example, turning off the TV or setting time limits on how long older children are on their smartphones to avoid doomscrolling.

Open a dialogue.

“The first step in opening a dialogue with your children is creating a safe space for it,” says Dr. Neha Chaudhary. “That means remaining calm, nonjudgmental, and approaching the conversation with your listening hat on. Your children need room to share what they're thinking and feeling. The dinner table is a great place to snag some uninterrupted time in a familiar environment.”

“The next step is meeting your kids where they are by asking what they already know. What have they seen on the news? What have they heard from friends?,” adds Dr. Chaudhary. “This allows you to fill in the gaps accordingly, without assuming that they know more or less than they really do. With teens who are typically on social media, it's safe to assume they know more, but with younger kids, it can be difficult to gauge. Ask them, and then listen.”

And, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, it’s your responsibility to provide them with facts and context.

"My own teenagers were showing me these memes and rumors on Instagram spreading about boys being drafted for World War III, no kidding," Holly Korbey, author of Building Better Citizens, told NPR.

"One of the most important things parents can do in this scary climate is to talk to kids about facts,” says Korby. For example: “No, there is not a draft, and no we haven't started World War III."

Talk about bad actions, not bad people.

“Labeling people as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ can be confusing, especially for younger kids,” says Dr. Chaudhary. “Talking about bad actions or behaviors instead can help highlight what you do and don't condone without confusing your child.”

“If you conflate the two, a child will likely internalize this and also conflate it later on — thinking that if someone does something bad, they are a bad person, instead of learning to reconcile the idea that one person might have good and bad actions,” adds Dr. Chaudhary. “Keeping labels out of it can be helpful for this part of their development.”

Look for, and become, helpers.

“Fred Rogers, the beloved children's TV host, famously passed on this advice from his mother,” write Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner for NPR. "When something scary is happening, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

“There are typically a lot of helpers during times of crisis, and highlighting them can help instill hope for your child,” states Dr. Chaudhary. “It also helps keep the balance such that your child is not left with only negative memories about the world and people outside of their immediate world. It can bring comfort to know that a lot of people are dedicated to helping keep us all safe.”

But, you can also help your children to take positive actions so that they can become helpers. Examples include writing letters to elected officials, collecting donations, or attending a peaceful rally if they feel safe.

Teach them healthy coping skills and emotional literacy.

“This is a great opportunity to model navigating big feelings through the practice of healthy coping skills,” says Dr. Chaudhary. Deep breathing exercises, physical activity, writing, and drawing are healthy ways to reduce anxiety and release endorphins. “The more your kids see you manage your feelings, the more they will learn to manage their own.”

Also, this might be the right time to help your children develop their emotional literacy -- which is “the ability to recognize, read, or name your own emotions.” Educational psychologist, and author of “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” Michele Borba has identified the four steps you should take to make this possible:

  • Stop and tune-in. Put down the phone and avoid distractions so that you can connect with them on an emotional level.

  • Look face-to-face. Get down to your child’s level and make eye contact with them.

  • Focus on feelings. Let them know why feelings are important and how to express them

  • Express the feelings. Help your children develop their emotional vocabulary so that they can accurately express how they feel.

Keep your own feelings in check.

While we are truly leaving in unprecedented and turbulent times, don’t let your children so you in distress. It’s not easy. But, your children can pick-up and model your feelings. When you begin to get angry, sad, or frustrated, take a break by going for a walk with your family, working on a creative project together, or whatever healthy distractions that can help you reduce stress, anxiety, and news coverage.

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