When pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election, televisions in households across the country showed images of a mob shouting, destroying property and confronting law enforcement.
In Sacramento, a large crowd gathered in a standoff with law enforcement on Capitol grounds to contest the election and voice support for outgoing President Donald Trump as the violence continued in D.C.
Experts say this kind of political turmoil — on top of the events of 2020 — can be deeply upsetting to children of any age, and parents need to take care to explain this week’s events in a way that provides context and support.
“This is a national trauma,” said Donna Sneeringer, a commissioner for First 5 Sacramento and chief strategy officer for the nonprofit Child Care Resource Center. “Both the pandemic, and the racial injustice that we've seen in our streets and has been pervasive in a lot of communities, that is trauma. And I think that it is something that will have to be considered.”
On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, some parents took to social media with concerns about the effect that the insurrection might have on their children, and how they should broach the subject.
I feel so bad for people with kids. Today is so tough to explain. How are you doing it?— Ana Sandoval 🇺🇸🍌🍸 (@bananababe44) January 6, 2021
Some experts gave direct guidance to parents:
Child psychiatry advice for today:— Neha Chaudhary, MD (@NehaChaudharyMD) January 6, 2021
- Limit kids' exposure to the media
- Provide reassurance and make sure they know they're safe
- Talk about wrong actions over labeling people as bad (latter is confusing for younger kids)
- Give them the space to ask questions#psychtwitter
The National Association of School Psychiatrists provides a detailed, age-specific guide on how to talk to children about violence, primarily created to address mass shootings. But experts say Wednesday’s events raise similar safety concerns for kids.
We asked Sneeringer, who is also the parent of a 15-year-old, for tips on how to address the insurrection.
What sorts of concerns are you hearing from families right now?
We've seen an increase in the need for mental health support for children and families, and particularly with the isolation that's come from the pandemic. I think parents are often concerned about what the right things are to share with their children and how they should have conversations about difficult times in our society. So what we typically advise parents to do is to really think about developmentally where their children are, what they are able to comprehend, what they are seeing and hearing, who they're talking to and work from that perspective.
How might parents make decisions based on a child’s age?
If you have very young children, trying to limit their exposure to media, trying to limit the conversations you have in front of them, because they are always listening. They sense our discomfort. And often the way children express their fear and their stress is through acting out in behavioral ways. So we really try to talk to parents about how to understand those cues and those stressors they see in their children. As children get older, they talk to friends, they talk to family members, they see more media. And it's often important to try to put in context what they're seeing and support them in understanding that there are adults in the conversation and in the situations that are doing good things. I always think about Mr. Rogers, who always told children to look for the helpers in difficult situations. So we really try to focus on that … it really is a matter of being aware of their stress and what they are seeing and hearing and then meeting them where they are with appropriate counsel and comfort.
To what extent is this a teaching moment?
Again, I think it has a lot to do with how old your children are and what their awareness is of the external world, the complicated political situation. For many kids, it's beyond what they'll be paying attention to. But they may see it on TV and it may concern them because people are angry. They see people shouting. They may also sense your own discomfort and concern. And it's just important to reassure them that you're there for them, that they are safe in the moment and try to work with them to understand what is happening.
My own daughter is a teenager and it really is an opportunity to talk about the importance of the pillars and foundations of our government and civic participation and why it's important to pay attention to this all the time, not just when there's a crisis. For smaller kids. You can go back to all those that were there to help and try to do the right things. The police officers and those who were trying to calm the situation and have those be those reassuring voices.
What can California do from a policy standpoint to better support children?
There is a good acknowledgement in state government in California that resources for mental health are going to be critical as we start to try to come out of this very difficult time. So I think it's important that we have a deliberate policy in place to support kids and families through these transitions as we try to resume school and go back to the office. Whatever our life might be, the frontline of working with children will be the child care providers and the teachers who are with them every day, and making sure they have the resources to understand the behavioral response kids will have to these kinds of changes.
Here are some resources for talking to children about violence:
And here are resources designed for teachers trying to talk about difficult current events:
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