Supporting children in the wake of violence at the U.S. Capitol

This is a guest blog post by Maria Theodorakakis, a City Connects Research Associate and a psychologist at  Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Watching — and often rewatching — the violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol last week can be incredibly destabilizing for children. Seeing the seat of government desecrated by mob violence and symbols of hate can be upsetting and scary.

So it’s crucial to address children’s questions and concerns in a supportive and age-appropriate manner. Children may have difficulty making sense of what they are seeing on the news or overhearing adults discuss. In response to such events, younger children often wonder whether they and their loved ones are safe. Older children may ask about the underlying social justice issues. Encouraging children to ask questions makes it clear what information they want and need. We can then offer realistic reassurance based on facts and point out, as Mr. Rogers advised, that in a crisis there are always people who help.

We should also think about how adults can serve as socio-emotional role models. As adults process their own real-time emotions, they have to be aware of how their responses will be interpreted by children in their lives. Often there’s this misconception that adults should not react, they should avoid bringing challenging topics up with children, and that adults should be brave and stoic and hide their distress. But it’s healthier for kids to see adults have authentic reactions, name their feelings, and effectively implement strategies for managing them. For example, adults can be role models by developing their own good habits, limiting media consumption and choosing not to stay glued to televisions and phone feeds all night, because information overload can raise everyone’s anxiety. 

In the wake of a traumatic event, it can also be beneficial to maintain a sense of stability and normalcy. Adhering to daily routines can help kids feel safer. Adults can also work hard to ensure that children continue to engage in enriching activities and have fun.

For school settings in particular, teachers and staff can work with each other and with school counselors to prioritize conversations about traumatic public events and challenging, related topics like racism and white supremacy. Schools should create safe spaces for these conversations, in-person or online. It is important to welcome differing perspectives and not assume we know how all students are feeling or responding. School staff can leave the door open for future conversations by reminding students that they can continue to bring up questions or concerns. This may be helpful for students who need additional time to process their feelings and articulate their thoughts or who don’t feel comfortable sharing in a large-group setting.

It’s also vital to remember that children bring their own strength and resilience. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, children have had the experience of coping with a global crisis. They know they can do it because they already have. And if they forget, adults can remind them.

At City Connects, where a core part of our practice is assessing students’ strengths and needs, we’re keeping our own eyes open. We are ready to support students so that they can harness their own strengths and continue to make progress, building brighter futures for themselves and for all of us. 

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