January 6, 2021 in America
How to talk to your children about the events of 01/06/2021
I know a lot of us wished that when the clock struck midnight on 2020, we would be moving into year of different circumstance. Unfortunately, our country is in a state of unrest, as evidenced by the takeover of the United States Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. For those that support the Black Lives Matter movement, or advocate for equality and equity, yesterday showed two realities, and the double standards in our country. Affiliation or beliefs aside, yesterday was a historical day for our country, and we will need to be able to talk to our children about these events.
Despite our best efforts to shield our children from the scary things that happen around us, they hear about current events, and/or feel a difference in our demeanor and energy. So, how do we talk to children about traumatic events in our country?
1) Before talking with your children, it is important to try to process your feelings related to the event; whether it be the takeover of the United States Capitol, a school shooting, or another horrific event we experience, we must examine our reactions first. While I am not recommending having your feelings resolved before talking to your children (because they would be waiting for a while), it is important to understand your own feelings, where we feel them in our body, if we feel safe, etc.
2) Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. In times of stress, children look to us. If you are agitated, angry, overtly scared, etc., your children will feel that is the way to process stress. While we want to be transparent, it is also important to remember, your children are always watching. Try to not angrily lump everyone in a group, based on their religious or political belief, or their color of their skin. This can be hard when the news tells us otherwise. Talk in front of your children, as you would like them to talk at school, your church, the synagogue, the Mosque, scouts, dance class, etc.
In addition to being intentional about your language, it is also important to be mindful of your reactions when your children ask you questions. Take the difference from thermostat (set at the same temperature) versus a thermometer (goes up and down depending on the environment around it). If you panic when your child asks you difficult questions, they may learn that their question is wrong, or scary, or not okay to ask. We want our children to be able to think freely, and explore their thoughts with acceptance.
3) Be proactive in talking with your children. Like I said before, they may have noticed a shift in your, or heard you talking, or maybe even seen some of the events on the TV, or heard them on the radio. When we ignore conversations (even if we are trying to shelter and protect our children), it can give the message that it is not safe, or okay to ask about the event.
4) Allow them to lead. Use open-ended questions (not yes or no questions), to get a better grasp on their understanding. An example of this conversation would start “Yesterday, there were some people that tried to take over the United States Capitol”…this can also be a quick government lesson on what happens there. Followed by open-ended questions like:
- “How do you feel about that”
- “What images have you seen”
- “What have you heard about what happened yesterday”
- “What questions do you have about what happened”
5) Reflect and use feeling language, while also ensuring their safety. Statements like “You feel scared about…”, “You feel worried that there are scary people out there”, “You feel curious about what happened, etc.”, followed by statements of “My job is to keep you safe.”, “My job is to help you understand. Let’s talk about it more”, or "If there is a time you don’t feel safe, please tell me and we will work together to help you feel safe”. This helps your children feel grounded (safe and comforted), while also allowing you to keep the dialogue open.
6) It is okay to NOT have all the answers. Model to your children that you, and they, will not always have the answers. It is okay to say “Hmm, that is a good question. Let me spend a little time thinking about it. Can we talk more about that tonight/tomorrow/after school?”. Furthermore, it is okay to say “I don’t know why it happened. I wish I had the answers, too”. This is another place to explore feelings.
7) Look for the helpers. Fred (Mr.) Rogers shares a story from his childhood. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Now, this is not to dismiss hard feelings, or present toxic positivity (only looking on the bright side of life), but to help children know there is a balance in life. There are bad/scary/hateful actions, and there are good/positive/loving actions. This is a great way to have them name people they trust (teacher, counselor, firefighter, police officer, grandparent, etc.) and to make some action plans to reduce the hatefulness in the world. What are ways they can demonstrate kindness tomorrow?
These conversations are hard, and it is OKAY to feel like you do not know what to say. Remember, when you have a home filled with shared feelings and open-ended conversations, your children will grow up to not only understand how they feel when scary things happen, but to be able to take perspectives of those that are different than them, with kindness and openness (even in your own family system).
I wish this would be the last time I would feel I need to impart this information, but I know it won’t be. Let us work together to make our world kinder, brighter, and full of individual differences. Fear is based on loneliness, but can be combatted with empathy and genuine connection.
If you feel like this is too hard to navigate, that is okay. Let us know how we can support you and your family.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay kind.