Talking with kids about the events of January 6

I’m the father of an 11-year-old and one of the pastors of a church that has more than 100 children who participate actively with their families. As the events unfolded in Washington, D.C. on January 6, in addition to my own reactions, I was thinking about how to process this event with children.

I was driving my daughter home from swim practice on Wednesday afternoon as we listened to the story play out on the radio. She asked me questions and I did my best to answer them. We got home and I went into my home office to work and my daughter sat down at her computer to continue her remote learning. I specifically instructed my daughter not to turn on the news or read headlines on her computer until we could do that together. I said: “You know that we are safe, right? And that our family is safe and the people we know are all safe.” She replied: “I know, Dad. I’m not worried about our safety. I’m worried about our country.” I invited her to write about it and told her I would love to read her interpretation and reactions.

That evening we sat down and watched the news together. The images were heartbreaking. The violence and destruction of property was devastating, and the symbolism of people storming the Capitol and desecrating the chambers of Congress was appalling and beyond words. I fell back on the words of Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television host and Presbyterian pastor. He taught us to “look for the helpers.” By early evening, you could pick the helpers out of the footage of the carnage and desecration of these symbols of democracy: the U.S. Capitol Police who tried to hold back the mob, the Senate aides who had the wherewithal to remove the ceremonial ballot boxes, the senators and representatives who helped each other shelter and evacuate. Looking for these sources of light and good in the midst of the chaos is a good exercise for any of us, but particularly for children.

At 7 p.m., my daughter proudly produced her “article” hot off the presses. She had written a summary of the day’s events through her eyes. This gave her a chance to process and react, and also gave my wife and me a chance to see how this was affecting her.

Obviously, each child is unique and each situation is different, but there are steps we can take to begin to process tragic events with our children. The first step is important: assure our children that they are safe, as are the people that they know and love. This provides them the security they need to begin to process. These next two steps we took (inviting our daughter to write about it and to “look for the helpers” in the midst of the news coverage) provided us a way to begin to process the events of the day.

If your child isn’t a writer, look for other ways to help them begin to verbalize and process their interpretations and reactions to what is going on. Asking age-appropriate, open-ended questions is good, and then dig deeper: “What do you mean by that?” “Can you tell me more about that?” In addition, it is OK to not have all the answers. If your child says, “Why is this happening?” it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know.” And it is also OK to ask your children, “Why do you think it is happening?” You might be surprised by their insight and answers.

To help them begin to process their feelings around events like these, sometimes sharing your own feelings in age-appropriate ways is a good way to open up the conversation. “I’m feeling sad today when I watch the people on TV hurt other people. It makes me sad because I don’t like to see other people hurt and I also don’t like to see other people being mean. How do you feel and why?” You can model the behavior to draw out the answers and feelings from your kids.

Praying together with your kids is also a really good way to continue to process events like this and the feelings that come up around them. Sometimes when our eyes are closed and we are talking to God, our feelings can come out more easily and clearly. Don’t forget to invite your kids to pray; you might be surprised by their insight and wisdom.

These are just a few ideas from my own experience and that I have gleaned from other wise parents and counselors. A Google search for “how to talk to children about trauma” can bring you more ideas and resources. It’s important to approach this work of helping our children process their feelings with humility. We may not have all the answers, and that’s OK. Reach out to other parents, to your pastor and to mental health professionals for help. The African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” is so true when we are trying to help our children process trauma, particularly when we are doing our own processing, so use the resources available in your community.