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Supporters of President Donald Trump violently breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as Congress convened to confirm the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
As rioters stormed the building and lawmakers were ushered to undisclosed locations, Americans were left grappling with the scenes appearing on their televisios and phones — and that includes children.
Madeleine St. Marie couldn’t help but feel distracted while teaching her middle school social studies class at West Early College in Denver. So she shared those feelings with her students and used the event as a jumping-off point for class discussion.
“This is an extremely American event,” she said. “It’s the culmination of a bunch of tensions that have been cooking for 70-plus years.”
How to talk to children about current events that are scary
Parents should have open and honest conversations with children about what is happening and why, including acknowledging that a child is scared and anxious. It can also help to list some of the things that are being done to keep a child safe, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“Children are naturally curious, and parents shouldn’t shy away from potentially uncomfortable topics or questions,” according to a blog by the hospital.
Child psychiatry advice for today:
– 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
— Neha Chaudhary, MD (@NehaChaudharyMD) January 6, 2021
It is also important to keep conversations age-appropriate. The National Association of School Psychologists has broken this up by age group, noting that the conversations on violence will vary depending on whether a child is in elementary, middle or high school.
For example, when talking about violence, young elementary school children will need brief and simple information and reassurance that adults will protect them.
Turn the conversation into a teaching moment
Denver teacher St. Marie used the day’s events to educate her students about coups and primary sources, or the things humans leave behind as evidence of history, she said.
On a day like Wednesday, that includes the videos and images captured by journalists on the ground, as well as tweets and commentary from academics, politicians and others watching or experiencing the insurrection in real time. Teachable moments abounded.
“Marco Rubio said this was behavior suitable for a third-world country, and so part of it is the inability to understand that democracy only works if we make it work,” she said. “The system doesn’t work in and of itself. It has to be enforced.”
Yes, discussing the importance of the transition of power is important, but what about the extreme differences in responses between the BLM protests and tonight’s attack on our nation’s capitol? Social and racial inequity needs to be addressed #sschat
— Olivia Roehri (@RoehriSStudies) January 7, 2021
While St. Marie guided the class conversation, she mostly let the students do the talking. When talking about subjects that bring up sensitive or uncomfortable emotions, she said it’s important to offer a space in which kids can openly and honestly process them.
Conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement have been productive in this way. West Early College serves largely Latinx students, so those students have different reactions based on their lived experiences, she said.
“They see videos of older Latino men, paleteros, being attacked by Black teens, and so some feel extremely ambivalent about BLM. They don’t get the rioting. Others are terrified of police,” St. Marie said. “When these conversations occur, I let people express themselves respectfully… because they need to talk to each other about this, not to me.”
Limit exposure to the news (and ask what they’re seeing online)
Parents should also consider limiting access to the news, even when it is on in the background as they play. Instead, be intentional with what children are allowed to watch and ask them about what they are seeing and if they have any questions, according to Children’s Hospital.
Children, particularly older ones, will likely see images, video and other information about the events online and through social media. It is important for parents to check in and ask kids about they are seeing.
“By checking in often, parents give their children a safe space to talk about what they’re seeing and hearing, and how their opinions might be different than a family member, friend or neighbor,” according to Children’s Hospital.
With teens it is also helpful to remind them to be aware of disinformation that is not entirely truthful about the event, according to the hospital.