Talking to our kids about the events on Capitol Hill

While it’s hard to believe what happened on Capitol Hill today, the effects on our psyches are undeniable. Even though Congress has reconvened and is getting back to the work of certifying the election results, this could be a very upsetting time for our families. 

Knowing that we may be able to give you some tools to talk to your kids, I called my social worker brother—who has a lot of experience counseling families—and he helped me pull together some ways to help our kids (and ourselves) during difficult times. Below are some tips about helping kids cope with today’s situation.

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Support your children

-Let your kids know that you love them, that they are safe, and that there are a lot of laws in place to help create order from chaos.

-Create an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their emotions. Allow for an open exchange of information that is age-appropriate.

-Try your best to be level-headed rather than overdramatic. It can be upsetting to your kids if you say things—even jokingly—about moving to Canada. 

 

Don’t make this an us vs. them situation

-Our country is experiencing a toxic level of polarization that may lead us to overestimate the differences between people and fail to see overlaps in values. There’s a great webinar (for adults and older kids) called America’s Divided Mind: Understanding the Psychology that Drives Us Apart that helps highlight these issues.Adding to the “us/them,” “ingroup/outgroup” dichotomy exacerbates rather than helps heal this polarization. 

-While extremist, dangerous behavior cannot be condoned, remind your kids (and maybe yourself) that the vast majority of people need the same things: to feel safe, to feel loved, to have the basics (food, water, shelter), and to feel understood. Remembering this can help us build bridges of connection, even with people we disagree with, rather than pushing each other farther apart.

-Talk to kids about social media and how their feeds may be showing them only things that they already agree with. Remind them that other perspectives exist. 

 

Make this a teachable moment

-Remind your kids about democracy, how people in America have the power to vote, and that while this system is being challenged, there are still checks and balances in place. 

-It’s especially important to remind your kids to not believe everything they read, see, and hear. Being media-savvy is crucial at all times, and today is no different. 

-Remind them what’s important: being kind, being empathetic, thinking for yourself, and considering the nuances of complex situations. 

-To that last point—this is a very complex situation, and it will take many discussions to help explain how we have come to this point in history.

 

Have appropriate expectations

-Don't let your own feelings and anxiety drive your child to be anxious. Kids have seen a lot of upheaval this year already, and they have been building resilience throughout the pandemic. Give them space to process. 

-Normalizing and validating what kids are feeling is key. Be careful that you don't project adult feelings on your kids (or think that they can't feel things in the same way adults do). Your child may be visibly upset by what happened today, or they may not be. Don't assume that there is one "right" way to react, and don't put emotions on your kids that they don't have. Everyone will respond to it in their own way, and all of those ways are “normal.” If you’re worried about their mental health, we have member-reviewed child and adolescent therapists for you to look into. 

-None of us are perfect, so don't expect that you—even as a parent—will be able to give a perfect answer or have all the answers. This is an emerging story, so take it slow and steady. Share information as it comes rather than trying to talk through all of it right now. 

 

Consider how much your child (and yourself) needs to be watching the media

-While you may want to be in the know, decide how much news coverage your kids need to watch. If they see upsetting news coverage, talk to them about it.

-Be careful that you don't become a news junkie yourself. Digesting too much of the media can change your world view and make you more agitated, and that can then rub off on your kids.

 

Talk and listen to your child

-Find out what your child knows about the situation. They may have overheard just a snippet, and that could have been misinformation. Ask, "What did you hear?" and "What do you think?" Collect information before you start supplying facts that they may not want or need. 

-You know your child better than anyone. For kids who are not old enough to understand the scope of the situation, will giving them more information just make them more worried?

-Be available to talk to them, and let them know that they can ask you any questions they want.

-Some kids may want to talk through the incident and what it means for democracy and their own safety multiple times as they process the information. This is normal, as kids process things at different rates and times.

 

Watch your own behavior and be kind to yourself

-Normalizing your own behavior is important here as well. Don't feel guilty or ashamed if you don't have all the answers for your kids or aren't being the "perfect parent" right now. There are no right and wrong ways for you yourself to deal with this.

-Take a walk, stretch, or meditate. Even just taking five deep breaths and grounding yourself by vocalizing your five senses (“I see the lamp, I smell the candle, I feel the warmth of my blanket”) can help you reorient and unwind. 

-Supporting yourself as a parent is as important as supporting your child. You may need to talk to people and "feel it through"; playing "tough" and showing no emotions is not good for anyone. Find safe ways to process your feelings and emotions without putting unnecessary pressure on your kids. If you get upset in front of them, it's okay to say, "This is an upsetting time, and I’m feeling a lot of different things right now."

-Conversely, be careful not to put your angst and baggage on your kids. If you are overwhelmed, worried, and anxious, they may sense that and start feeling the same. You need to process your feelings as well, but they don't necessarily need to be part of that processing.

-Children will model your behavior (and the behavior they see on TV and from their peers), so watch your own actions and coping mechanisms.

 

Watch their behavior

-If possible, maintain your family routines and spend time together. (Yes, this means switching off the television and not being on your computer or phone.) Optimize times when you are together (e.g., walking home from the park, driving in the car) to talk honestly and gauge their reactions.

-Some kids aren't comfortable talking about their feelings or are too young to vocalize them. Allow them space to think and process independently, but leave the door wide open to discuss it.

-If your child seems visibly upset, do watch for signs such as sleep or eating issues, nightmares, being overly worried, or asking questions about their safety or the safety of the country. If you’re seeing prolonged unusual behaviors, you may want to seek help for your kids.

 

This is a situation that is unprecedented in America right now. Many people I've talked to are shaken up and worried. Call a friend, and remember to hug your kids, partners, and pets.

Susan Fox, PhD (with consultation from Daniel Fox, LICSW)

Park Slope Parents