Talking to Children About the Events at the U.S. Capitol

As we approach the weekend, take a few minutes to have Better Conversations at school or at home about this historic week.

The recent riots and violence erupting inside the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, was an event not witnessed in the past two centuries. These past few days have evoked many reactions including shock, fear, anxiety and worry, confusion, and even anger. It shook our ideas about democracy, how we settle differences, and how we express our views. This attack on our Capitol challenged our ideas about safety in our country. These reactions are compounded by continued concerns and stressors related to COVID-19, as well as racism and social injustice. As we struggle to make sense of what we are seeing and hearing, so too are our children and teenagers. They will be turning to trusted adults for help and guidance. It is imperative that we talk to them about what is happening and what everyone can do.

Start the conversation. Talk about the events with your child/teen. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that you may not know what to do or how to cope. With traditional and social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and breaking news), it is highly unlikely that your child/teen has not heard about the rioting in our Capitol.

  • What does your child/teen already know? Start by asking what your child/teen has already seen or heard about the events in the Capitol and the aftermath. Listen for what understanding they have reached. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information will evolve in the days ahead. Do not assume automatically that preschool children do not sense your emotions or have not heard your conversations.
  • Bring your child/teen to the Memorial and Museum. Take some time this weekend and walk through the Field of 168 Empty Chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial or visit the Memorial Museum to understand the story of how a disgruntled American soldier thought he could divide our country – yet the country united. Don’t miss an opportunity to use our National Memorial and Museum to teach the current story of today.
  • For educators: Schools, even if virtual, will also be a place that children/teens may be discussing the event. Teachers need to be aware of these conversations and, as appropriate, incorporate the event into classroom learning (e.g., government, history, social studies).

Gently correct inaccurate information. If you hear inaccurate information or misunderstandings from your child/teen, take time to provide the correct information in language your child/teen can understand.

  • Encourage your child to ask questions and answer those questions directly. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about recent events. For example, they may ask if it is possible for such riots and violence to come to your community or your State Capitol. They are probably really asking whether it is “likely.” It is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk. They are also asking if they are safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has of assuring safety in the event of any crisis situation.
  • Help your child/teen identify adults they can trust should something be said or done that makes them feel uncomfortable in case you are not around. Consider reading books about nonviolence, democracy, or how we treat others, even when we disagree. Discuss the book after it is read as a way to jump-start a conversation about a challenging topic.
  • For educators, consider books and reading assignments that address issues of nonviolence, democracy, and kindness.

Discuss our democracy and how leaders are chosen, again answering those questions directly. This is an opportunity to discuss that when people disagree about how different issues are handled, we have a system that has worked in our country for over 200 years—we vote. We voice our concerns, we debate and share our views, but violence is never the answer.

  • It is also important to share with children/teens that even though there were riots, there were responders who protected our leaders and staff who were inside.
  • After everyone was safe, our leaders came together and continued to carry out their responsibilities for our country.
  • Share other times that violence occurred and how communities and the country continued, stronger than ever (e.g., the bombing in Oklahoma City, the terrorist attacks of 9/11).
  • Our Capitol, the People’s House, remains standing and strong.
  • Our leaders continue to keep our country moving forward.

The people who attacked the Capitol did not represent the majority of our country. The majority of people in the United States do not believe that violence is the answer to differences in our views, even when those differences are strong.

Empower your children and teens. These events bring up discussions about divisions in our country and disagreements about issues. This can be about COVID-19 and masks, racism and hate, and/or issues like climate change. There will always be disagreements, but there is never a place for violence to resolve them. Help your child/teen develop ways to discuss differences when they disagree with others.

  • For preschool children: You may begin the conversation with “sometimes people do things that can be scary. Some people may say these things to us just because we don’t think or act or look the same. If someone ever tries to be a bully to you because they don’t agree with you or are bothered by who you are, it is important for you to tell me and to tell your teacher. I will do everything I can to be sure you are always safe. That is your teacher’s job, too. No one ever should be bullied or made to feel bad because of who they are, what they look like, or what they believe.”
  • For older children and teens: Discuss these events with an historical perspective. Discuss how our democracy works and the challenge faced through our history. Discuss the importance of voting. We choose our leaders, yet they often disagree. How they resolve differences peacefully is important. How we can peacefully let our voices be heard as differences are addressed is also important. Discuss media literacy – how to investigate and understand reliable social media and news sources. Consider writing a letter together to legislators to register their opinions. Perhaps your child may want to create a song or video or art about the event to share their feelings and thoughts.
  • For college students: As your college student returns to school, they (and you) may be concerned about how recent events may be played out on college campuses. These may take the form of protests, rallies, and student organizations being formed. Existing organizations may also be planning activities or special events. Talk to your college student about safety and security on campus. Identify where to find information. Identify trusted organizations and individuals. Discuss their thoughts about involvement such as potentially writing letters to legislators to register their opinions.
  • For educators: There will be many opportunities to weave these ideas into lessons. Make a plan for this. It is a topic that is not a “one and done,” rather a topic that will be relevant as much today as tomorrow.

Values and beliefs. As you begin conversations, recognize that this is an important opportunity to instill your values and beliefs about respect, tolerance, and diversity of viewpoints. What your child/teen hears and sees from you, they learn and may emulate as their own values and beliefs. It is essential to share the idea that violence is not the answer to resolving differences.

  • Recognition of other groups: When talking to your child/teen about your values and beliefs, help them identify other viewpoints that may have significant differences as well as groups who may be targeted for hate and discrimination. Your child/teen may also be scared, worried, anxious, and even angry. Consider how you would like your child to support others who may be targeted just because of what they think.
  • Consider acts of kindness: When violence happens, it is important to remember that there can also be acts of kindness. With your child/teen discuss at least one small act of kindness your family may offer to someone, some group, each other that gives the message that “we will be okay and there are people who care.”
  • For educators: Consider a classroom/school-wide activity for acts of kindness. This is also an opportunity to review bullying policies and a discussion of how to treat each other and how to resolve conflicts.

Common reactions. Children/teens may have reactions to these events. In the immediate aftermath of a stressful event, including such acts as took place at the Capitol, problems with attention and concentration may arise. Increases in irritability and defiance may be present. Children and even teens may have more difficulty separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or with caregivers. Worries and anxieties about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how this will impact their lives are common. Children/teens may think about this event, even when they are trying not to. Sleep and appetite may also be affected. In general, these reactions will begin to lessen within a few weeks of events. Support from you will help with feelings of safety and security.

  • For educators: Stress is associated with attention and concentration difficulties as well as retaining new material. Be mindful of lengthy assignments (e.g., can you get your lesson across with 20 math problems rather than 30?). Be mindful that grades may slip with stress, but with support, they are expected to return again.

Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the events with your child/teen at a level they can understand. You may express worry, fear, and even anger for what happened and for what leaders and others are saying. You may express sadness, worry, and empathy for innocent people trying to do their jobs. But, also share with your child/teen ideas for coping with difficult situations. Your positive statements about the response by many leaders and others in support of our democracy and the way our country moves forward in a positive way will increase your child’s sense of security and safety. Model your values about how to appropriately take action as a citizen or raise conversations with others.

Limit exposure to adult conversations. Be mindful that children/teens are sensitive to your stress. Know that they also listen to your conversations, even when you don’t believe they can hear you or are attending to you. Children may not understand all your conversations and will fill in the blanks, often with misconceptions or inaccurate information. While the recent events have raised concerns for adults, have discussions about your feelings and thoughts with other adults out of your child’s or teen’s presence. It is important that you express your concerns in a healthy way as stress impacts all of us.

  • For educators: Be mindful of hallway conversations. Students are always aware of your words and your behaviors.

Encourage critical analysis about media use. The riots and violence in the Capitol and the aftermath is in every type of media. For the very young child, there is truly no “good” amount. For young children and teens who will likely have contact with traditional and social media, use the opportunity to discuss media literacy – how to investigate and understand reliable social media and news sources. Take time to seek different perspectives and stay informed and educated. In all cases, find a time to ask your child/teen about what they have seen and heard. Get their ideas and opinions. Further, checking in to determine what their friends may be saying about what is happening can give you insights into your child’s/teen’s concerns.

Keep to routines. In times of stress, routines can be comforting for children/teens. As much as possible, keep these in place. Routine can also decrease ongoing stressors related to the pandemic.

  • For educators: Maintaining schedules during times of stress can reduce distress in your students.

Be patient. In times of stress, children/teens may have more trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. Even if they may not openly seek your understanding or support, they will want this. With adolescents who are searching for an increased sense of independence, it may be more difficult to ask for support and help. Child/teen will need a little extra patience, care, and love. Be patient with yourself too!

  • Note: For children/teens who have experienced traumatic events, including exposure to violence, or may have mental health concerns, the attack on the Capitol may activate the reactions or escalate mental health challenges. Be attentive, supportive, and remind your child/teen of coping skills they have used in the past. Reach out for help as needed.

Extra help. Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your child’s/teen’s abilities to function or you are worried, contact your pediatrician, school counselor, local mental health professional or clergy for referrals to a mental health professional with expertise in trauma.

“…we can never stop instilling an understanding of the senselessness of violence, especially as a means of effecting government change. We must always convey the imperative to reject violence.”
– Excerpt from Memorial Mission Statement, Adopted 1996


Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D.
Professor, Duke University Medical Center, Center for Child & Family Health

Elana Newman, Ph.D.
McFarlin Professor of Psychology, University of Tulsa

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