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Using Common Sense: Talking to kids about insurrection and other disturbing news events

With wall-to-wall media coverage of such events in real time, children are witnessing tragic events they don’t understand, let alone have the critical thinking capacity to process.

January 19, 2021: Armed National Guardsmen on security detail at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

From coronavirus and social injustice to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — which played out on national television and social media — our kids have been exposed to months of violence and disturbing events.

The storming of the Capitol was a shocking attack on the hallmark of American democracy: the peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president to the next. As Congress met to certify the 2020 Electoral College vote, a gathering outside the Capitol turned violent as rioters broke windows, unlawfully entered the building, ransacked House and Senate chambers and members’ offices and disrupted the democratic process. Five people died.

With wall-to-wall media coverage of such events in real time, children are witnessing tragic events they don’t understand, let alone have the critical thinking capacity to process. it’s nearly impossible to keep the news at bay until you’re able to figure out what to say.

“Kids are trying to make sense of what they’re seeing and hearing,” said Diane Lowrey, senior director of community partnerships for Common Sense Media. “Kids are often more tuned into our emotions than we realize. If, as a parent, you’re showing fear, anger, sadness or frustration, explain to your kids that these emotions are normal and that they have nothing to do with anything they did.”

For some adults and older children, Lowrey said images of the rioting crowd might trigger memories of past violent events in the U.S. or in other countries. Racist imagery like swastika symbols and Confederate flags in the Capitol are hurtful and disturbing. “It’s important to acknowledge these triggers and give everyone the space they need to express their feelings,” she said.

Elementary school-aged children and some middle schoolers have trouble fully understanding news events. And though older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation. No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally, said Caroline Knorr, former parenting editor at Common Sense.

“Many can feel worried, frightened, angry or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over,” she said. So how do we talk with kids about big, important topics like violence, racism and political unrest?

One way parents and caregivers can help their children is to create a safe space and talk without distraction, according to Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith, a child psychologist and the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Berkeley, California-based Wright Institute. “Find out what they know and what they’re worried about, and watch for signs of distress,” she suggests.

What you say depends on your experience, but here are some guiding steps from Briscoe-Smith to consider as you talk with your kids about tough topics:

  • Check in with yourself first. Before focusing on what to tell your kids, what do you tell yourself? How are you staying well? If you aren’t well, how do you get help?
  • Consider your own reactions. Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.
  • Listen to your children. Listen deeply and support their actions. Don’t just talk at them. Hear what solutions they’re thinking about. We can support our children in leading without leaving them to clean up our messes. Many young people have shown the ability to tackle everything from climate change and gender equity to mass violence.
  • Tackle important stuff in small doses. It is important to talk to children about the bad things going on in the world, and in some cases, information can be doled out in safer doses. The images and sounds of tragedy and violence take a toll on kids. Pick one event, one short clip from a protest, a social media post that resonates, or a YouTube video and use that as a conversation starter.
  • Cultivate stories of resilience. Don’t forget that we have been through terror and trauma before. Every family has a story of survival and of resilience, as does our country. Cultivate those stories. Listen and move into action with compassion and empathy. Pay attention to, create and share narratives, images and sounds of our joy and resilience.
  • Take action. Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find proactive ways to respond to current events. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or peaceful protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid all exposure to violence and unsettling media, but in your own home, you have a lot of control over what your kids watch, see and play. For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy, visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association. For more on how news can impact kids, check out Common Sense Media’s publication News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News.

Protest murals.

Talking to kids about the news

Dramatic, disturbing news events can leave parents speechless. Here are some age-appropriate questions from Common Sense experts to help you find out what your kids and teens know about the event, and what questions they have, and to take care of their emotional well-being. You can also use news events as a teachable moment to help older kids and teens develop critical-thinking and media literacy skills.

Ages 2–7

Young kids aren’t yet fully able to understand complex situations. Kids at the younger end of this group still can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. If you can, try to turn off the news when young kids are around. Of course, they may still hear about scary news from their siblings or friends — or overhear an adult talking about it. If they do, let them know that they and their family are safe, and use these questions to support them:

  • What did you watch/hear about what happened? (Ask follow-up questions without adding unnecessary information.)
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What would make you feel better?
Ages 8–12

Older kids can have various reactions to what they see on the news and social media platforms such as TikTok or YouTube. Some are more sensitive than others to news of violence. Think about how they’ve reacted in the past, and use these guiding questions to learn more about what questions they have and how they’re feeling:

  • What did you watch/hear about what happened? (Ask follow-up questions, clarify misconceptions, and give them additional perspectives.)
  • How do you feel? How do you think your friends and other people in your family feel, including people from different backgrounds and races?
  • For more mature kids: What differences do you see in the way the media is talking about the situation compared to the Black Lives Matter protests? Do they use different words to refer to this event and the people involved?
  • What do you think about the lawmakers who came back and completed the job of certifying the election? What do their actions communicate?

Teens often feel passionately and have strong opinions about events in the news. Give them space to express how they feel without judgment. Since most teens get their news from social media, ask questions to help them think critically about what they’re seeing and reading. Help them consider various perspectives and connect the dots with what they’ve learned in school. Older kids might be worried about the state of the country, events in their own town, or what might happen next — especially since the news seems to deliver new developments every 30 seconds. Use these guiding questions to start the conversation:

  • What are you seeing on social media or the news about the events in the Capitol? How do you feel about what you see? Whose perspective is being featured? Whose voices are missing?
  • Which words are journalists or social media influencers using to talk about the situation or the people involved? Do you think they would use different words if the rioters were Black, Latinx or Muslim?
  • How was the police response and the news coverage different from the Black Lives Matter protests?
  • Is this moment comparable to any other in U.S. history? (Use reliable sources to learn about past events. If your family has recently immigrated to the U.S., ask whether it compares with anything that’s happened in your country of origin.)
  • How can society prevent violent attacks on democratic institutions? What specific actions can you take to have a positive impact on the future?
Ilana Loweryhttp://commonsense.org
Ilana Lowery is the Arizona director for Common Sense Media. She can be reached at ilowery@commonsense.org.


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