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Explaining Capitol insurrection to kids

Amy Joyce  |  Washington Post

"This is frightening," my friend texted as we considered whether to send our kids to the park to play Wednesday.

"My kids asked me why I was crying," another friend said.

"Exhausted. This is all so exhausting. I tried explaining things ... as it was all unfolding," another texted as we checked in on one another.

How, one wanted to know, do they explain to their children, who took part in peaceful Black Lives Matters protests last summer, under the watchful eye of thousands of armed police, why the violent people who broke into the U.S. Capitol were not arrested?

Our tweens and teens don't feel safe. They are confused. They are angry. In other words, they feel like we do.

So how do we, as the trusted adults in the room, the people they thought had all the answers, actually answer? How do we explain this mess when we, ourselves, are having a hard time processing this reality?

"As somebody who taught kids for years and writes for them, I feel like being honest with tomorrow's citizens is really essential," says Kate Messner, a middle-grade author and former middle school teacher. It was her Twitter thread that was a bright spot of helpfulness.

Our kids have shown us they are resilient, but it's up to us to make sure they remain healthy and confident as they grow. So as we caregivers navigate the events that unfolded at the Capitol last week, here are some ways to help our children also find their way in a confusing time.

Don't hide

We need to realize that our kids, no matter their age, know something is happening. And often, they know more than we may think, particularly our tweens and teens who have access to the internet and peers. If you think you are protecting your child by avoiding the tough topics, you're not. "We underestimate kids sometimes," Messner says. "But they're always watching and thinking about what's happening, and what does this mean and how does it fit into the world I want to live in?"

Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, says we need to assume our kids are internalizing their emotions after learning of the events at the Capitol. "We are delusional if we're thinking they don't already have stress. ... It's affecting them and making them think about, 'What does this mean about the world we live in?" he says.

Talking about the scary issues directly can help give our kids agency and feel a little more in control.

Anisha Abraham, a pediatrician who focuses on teen well-being and is on the faculty at Children's National Hospital and Georgetown University Hospital, says it's important parents acknowledge something is happening right now, "and that it's disrupting for adults as well as kids." We don't have to have all the answers, but we should let our kids know that we understand they're feeling something and that we can listen.

Most of all, our children need honesty from us. If they ask, we should answer. "We leave out pieces of history when we teach history, and there's a tendency to leave out the uncomfortable parts," says Messner, author of the "History Smashers" book series for kids. "But I think that's a mistake. We're raising kids, but we're also raising citizen and voters and leaders. They need to be well prepared and informed and capable of critical thinking."

Tailor your language to your child

It's important to tell kids that it's OK to feel frustrated or sad about what happened on the Hill this week. But equally important is to tell them very directly that "you love them, they are safe and you are there for them," Abraham said. Facts help: Explain that this happened at the Capitol, and that's where the mob intended to go. The people who did these things have no reason to come to your neighborhood or your house.

You can have a conversation about the awful events with kids of all ages, Messner says. For instance, with younger kids: "Wow, something scary happened today. Let's look for the helpers. Who were the people who were brave and who helped? Let's talk about Tammy Duckworth, a U.S. veteran as well as a senator who said 'I'm going to go back and do my job, and no mob will keep me from doing that,'" Messner says. "There are good stories to share with kids about people who are leading, who are doing their jobs under really difficult circumstances. And there are peace makers: leaders who spoke up yesterday and said, 'This is not how we do things.'"

With middle school kids, she says, there are bigger issues you can discuss, and you can talk about the historical perspective, the "idea of how we handle a peaceful transfer of power and how that's supposed to look. And what it's looked like in the past."

It's not that there haven't been issues before. There are stories we can draw from, history to talk about that will help put this into perspective. Talk about what a good leader looks like. Our middle school and high school kids "have learned what a good leader looks like, and they're always looking at the leaders they see on TV and saying that's not what this is supposed to be," Messner says.

Tune in to your child's emotions

"You as a parent or caregiver probably know your child better than anyone else, and you've been spending more time together than ever," says Abraham, who is also the mother to 7th- and 5th-grade boys. So if you feel like there is something changing in your child, pay attention to that. They may be internalizing the stress of the pandemic, the election and, now, violent mobs breaking into a place that's sacred to our country.

"For teens or tweens, as it is, there's always going to be ups and down emotionally and not wanting to spend as much time with parents, pulling away, wanting to be with peers," she says. "But on top of that, if they are withdrawing more or not wanting to be with peers, if they don't want to be involved with things they enjoyed before," take it as a sign they may need some extra attention or help.

For example, she has been seeing a lot of young people recently coming in to the hospital for eating issues, she said, as they try to take control of one thing in a time that feels very out of control. "Those are things to be aware of."

 Take stock of their media exposure

As important as it is that we talk about the news and what our children are seeing, it's also important to limit their exposure if they are just doom-scrolling or having a hard time pulling away from 24-hour news on the TV. The tough part will be for us, parents, to do the same. Abraham's 12-year-old is "genuinely curious about what's happening right now," and she needs to be sure he isn't staring too much at the television. "It's important that families make sure there's some nondigital time," she says. "Having some breaks where they all can get outside and connect with nature or do things to decompress are important."

For those who are particularly sensitive (and you know who those are), it's really OK to stop the stream of news, she says. "That's one thing we can control and model. If you don't turn the TV on, maybe they won't as well."

Explain to your teens that you know they care, but there may be "a point of diminishing returns in watching everyone's Instagram stories," he says. Say: "I want you to be informed and feel like you are taking action, but at some point, you need to back away and take care of yourself." For those teens who want to be active and help, explain that taking care of oneself is important to make us effective later, he said.

Look for the lessons

One of the big issues tweens and teens are grappling with is the difference between the police responses to the violent break-in at the Capitol and the peaceful protests this summer. Teens are comparing photos of armed police in riot gear waiting for peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters after George Floyd was murdered with photos of police helping a woman down the steps of the Capitol after she joined the violent insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol to try to overturn an election. (Don't think they are? Ask if they'll show you. The surely have it right there on TikTok or their Insta stories.)

The dissonance is real, and our kids are aware. We can explain it as racism, pure and simple, but for our children to fully understand, we need to continue the education -- or start it immediately.

"I always turn to books as a writer and an educator," Messner said. "There are a lot of great books that can help explain that difference they're seeing. ...Those two groups were not treated the same." But it deserves a "long answer that has to do with more than the past four years." For tweens and teens, she recommends "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You" by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and "This Book is Antiracist" by Tiffany Jewell.

And throughout it all, we parents just need to be the safe landing spot. Sometimes that means no books or media, just connection. So today, maybe leave your home office door open. Maybe put down your phone and look at your child. They may want some questions answered, but more than anything, they need to know they are supported, no matter what, by their loving adults. Adults who are listening.

"Anytime I have a conversation with kids at a school visit," Messner says, "I come away so hopeful. They are passionate about justice. They are smart. And they are determined to make things better."