How to Talk to Kids About the Violence at the U.S. Capitol

US Capital 2

Photo: Getty Images

Disasters, crises, and other troubling incidents can be short-term or ongoing. They can be acts of nature such as a hurricane, an earthquake, or a worldwide pandemic, or they can be acts of violence committed by people, like the storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In times like these, it's vital for learners—of all ages—to voice their concerns and fears and ask questions.

While many consider children to be more emotionally resilient than adults, multiple studies suggest that children can be at greater risk after traumatic events for lingering effects including anxiety, depression, and behavioral and learning problems. Some children who are exposed to events through the media or by overhearing adult conversations can show many of the same symptoms as those who experience those events firsthand. While talking to children about traumatic news events, parents and school professionals can employ the following strategies to empower students through knowledge while restoring a sense of calm.

Focus on Feelings

Media coverage can provide valuable information and build empathy for affected populations. As the primary sources of accurate information, parents and educators should share and explain facts as plainly as possible, while being mindful of age appropriateness and avoiding repeated exposure.

As teachers wade into difficult topics, including incidents of violence, it is important not to re-traumatize students. Get to know your students, particularly whether they or their families have experienced such a trauma.

“Listening is imperative to being able to engage in meaningful dialogue with anyone,” says Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). “From a teacher’s perspective, it is extremely important to know where their students are as individuals—not just as a whole classroom—in terms of what they know, what they’ve seen and heard, the conversations they’ve had, and what they’re feeling and thinking.”

Cowan adds that teachers and parents can engage children and older students in a conversation that “feels meaningful to them, and can allow them to explore what’s going on, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling about what’s going on, how they are understanding why somebody else might feel differently about it, and what that means.”

Further, Cowan says teachers and parents can talk with kids about transforming their feelings into appropriate actions. “[These are actions] that help us feel connected to solutions, that help us feel more connected to others, and that help us feel like we can be a part of making a positive difference, whatever that’s going to look like,” she explains. “It’s an ongoing process. You don’t have that conversation once and then you’re done.”

Age-Appropriate Discussions

Elementary school-age children might think that repeated coverage of the same event is actually multiple events or that more people have been affected. They might think that the event occurred nearby. Use maps to show the location of where an event took place, emphasize for students the distance, and provide context for the scope of the event. Clarify misconceptions, but avoid lecturing.

“It’s an opportunity for an informed adult to help correct any factual misunderstandings of what may or may not be happening, particularly for younger children,” Cowan says. “If they only get snippets of news or snippets of conversations and they don’t fully know what is going on, they might fill in the blanks, if you will, with things that may make them feel worse unnecessarily.”

Meanwhile, middle and high school students may want to explore the politics involved or participate in charitable work related to the event. Discuss strategies for problem solving after crises or traumatic events.

“A seven-year-old doesn’t need the same information or details [that you would give] a 17-year-old,” Cowan says. No matter the age, she advises that they not be overburdened “with information or details that they really don’t need in order to be where they should be as individuals.”

“It’s an ongoing process. You don’t have that conversation once and then you’re done.”

Katherine Cowan

Director of Communications, NASP

Accentuate the Positive

Wherever possible, take a positive spin. Highlight the fact that Congress reconvened to count the Electoral College votes just hours after the riots took place, and that many members of both political parties have been unified in condemning the actions of those involved.

“Kids, like adults, need to find something that gives hope and shows the power of possibility,” Cowan says. “In moments that feel volatile or dark, it’s imperative to help identify what people are doing to help others and to make a positive change in whatever is causing the problem. It’s an underpinning of resilience that you can acknowledge something is bad."

Cowan suggests raising the question: How can you, as an individual; how can we, as a family; or how can we, as a classroom, be a part of what’s making a positive difference? That, she says, carves the pathway to hope and possibility—something that people need in times that feel stressful, difficult, and overwhelming. “It’s our responsibility as adults to help children and young adults do that. They are looking to us to be part of that positive pathway process.”

What to Look for and Recognize

Cowan says most children having difficulty coping after a traumatic event will be fine after receiving normal intervention and care from their natural support systems, which can include their parents, families, teachers, and friends. If those natural support systems don’t help the child reach the pathway of hope and possibility, more extensive intervention may be required.

Parents, caregivers, and school professionals can watch for warning signs such as persistent fearfulness that can manifest as clinginess and sleeping problems, heightened irritability, attention deficit, depression, social withdrawal, and even physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach aches, and a lack of energy).

A Sense of Stability

Disasters, crises, and other traumatic events disrupt and destabilize. Studies suggest that children model their coping strategies on those of their parents, their teachers, or other important adults in their lives. While parental panic can inspire panic in children, a show of strength and confidence can make recovery more likely.

As parents and educators encourage discussion around these events, they should also work toward restoring stability by limiting children’s exposure to sensationalist news stories and by resuming familiar routines or creating new, comforting ones.

Additional Resources:

Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Second Edition (PDF) by the New York University Child Study Center, 2006.

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers from the National Association of School Psychologists

Supporting Marginalized Students in Stressful Times: Tips for Educators from the National Association of School Psychologists

Talking To Kids About Fear And Violence, Mental Health America

This blog, originally published in June 2020, has been updated for January 2021.