The events at the U.S. Capitol caused fear and confusion. Here’s how to help children make sense of it all.
As the news of a mob of violent protesters storming the U.S. Capitol played out on Wednesday—on top of what’s already been a scary and overwhelming year—it’s normal for children to have fears and questions. And it’s normal for parents to be unsure about how to respond.
After all, finding a balance between helping kids understand the world and not causing too much anxiety can be difficult, says Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego.
“Parents are often tempted to lie as a first response, because they don’t want their child to worry or that they shouldn’t be burdened with this, and that’s a bad approach,” she says. “It’s bad to overwhelm children with too much information, but you can tell them the truth in simple ways and use their questions to guide you on how much to share.”
Even though you might be tempted to try to keep the news from your kids, or to even lie about what’s happening—don’t. According to Cassidy O’Brien, a family therapist at San Diego Kids First, confronting kids’ worries head on, explaining what’s happening in a truthful but simple way, and emphasizing that kids are safe are the best ways to help children make sense of the chaos.
“Kids are like sponges and are really absorbing everything, and it’s safe to assume kids have had some exposure to the news,” O’Brien says. “If they don’t have that guidance, they might create a narrative in their head that’s inaccurate and not helpful for them.”
First and foremost: You are safe.
Often the first thing kids think about in the wake of chaotic news is whether they’re safe. O’Brien advises reiterating that your role as caregiver is to protect them, and that you’ll always do that.
It’s also appropriate to tell kids that it’s OK to feel scared, which models how you handle anxiety as well. “Normalize and validate how they’re feeling,” she says. “You can say, ‘You’re feeling scared about this. Me, too. This is scary and it’s normal to feel that way.’”
She adds that parents can help give children a feeling of control by telling them that they can gather more information and learn about the events together. That can include grabbing a map for those children not in the immediate vicinity.
“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.”
By Claire Trageser