How To Talk To Kids About The Riots At The U.S. Capitol

Jan 7, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 3:04 am

Music teacher Martin Urbach was up most of Wednesday night working with colleagues on lesson plans to help his students make sense of the day's events. "I only got like two hours of sleep."

Then, Thursday morning, he and his students at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City met over Zoom to talk about how a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, looted, destroyed property and succeeded, for several hours, in interrupting the certification of President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

"I'm not sure if people know, but yesterday was a pretty tricky day in our country, in our world. ... I would love to pick your brains and learn together," Urbach said, opening the mic and the chat window to students.

One student said she thought Trump was a "sore loser who ... should take accountability and be more mature about the situation." Another contrasted what he'd seen with more peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. "They're breaking into the Capitol, breaking windows and everything. A protest is supposed to be calm, it's just walking and saying chants."

One girl sounded overwhelmed and said she was having trouble following all of the "crazy" things happening. She had seen a video of a woman getting pepper-sprayed. "I find the news kind of scary."

No doubt many young people across the country are finding this moment extremely scary. Parents, caregivers and teachers can help children cope.

Help children make sense of the news

Teachers such as Urbach and organizations around the country turned out a vast range of classroom resources, literally overnight, to address students' questions and feelings. Many of those resources include images, tweets and memes, and give guidance for talking about the role of white supremacy in Wednesday's violence.

By Thursday morning, there were guides from the education nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, PBS NewsHour Extra and the New York City Department of Education. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, at the University of Michigan, shared a guide for discussing difficult or high-stakes topics. Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Dunn collected social justice and trauma-informed tips for teachers.

For those struggling with talking to the youngest children, Martha Bishop, who teaches kindergarten outside Tucson, Ariz., shared this with NPR on social media:

"I think I'd probably tell them that today some people threw big naughty grownup temper tantrums because they didn't like how the vote for president turned out. They did this instead of using their words and it was a little scary, just like it can be scary when you see another kid (or sibling?) throw a BIG temper tantrum. They were loud and interrupted our leaders while they were doing important work. But helpers stopped them and our leaders got to do their jobs!"

As NPR has reported, there's evidence that talking about helpers can make a difference in how kids see their world.

Calm anxiety

What's notable about this crisis is that so many children were at home where they could watch it unfold in real time, with no check on the dosage of news, says Melinda Macht-Greenberg, a clinical, developmental and school psychologist in the Boston area. She says we should think about "modeling for kids how to be able to manage the questions, the worries, the anxiety as they are emerging, and to be preparing them for some of the things that might happen next that they might be worried about."

She says to watch for changes in eating, sleeping, emotional volatility or clinginess in kids. Take breaks from the news. And keep inviting them to talk, even if they don't seem to want to take in what's happening.

Psychologist Reena Patel says her toolbox for calm with children and teenagers includes breathing exercises, visualizations and positive affirmations, such as "I can do this." She also encourages parents "coming up with ways that we can teach children to compartmentalize some of their worries and stress and anxiety." Like writing them down, or setting aside a certain time of day to talk about them.

Remember, Macht-Greenberg says, this is not a "one and done" situation. We don't have to get these conversations with our children perfect on the first try. We need strategies for the long haul, because we're likely to continue in a moment of "drawn-out," low-grade anxiety between now and the inauguration.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

How do you talk to children and teenagers about what happened last week at the U.S. Capitol? They might be following the news or just picking up on adults' anxiety. And as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, parents, caregivers and teachers can help.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: One day after the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Martin Urbach checked in on Zoom with his students at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN URBACH: Welcome, welcome, welcome, my dear loves. I'm not sure if people know, but yesterday was a pretty tricky day in our country, in our world. And I want to hear kind of how - what - you know, I would love to pick your brains and learn together.

KAMENETZ: Urbach's joining from his bedroom. Many of his ninth-graders are doing the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URBACH: How are you feeling right now based on the events that happened yesterday in D.C.?

KAMENETZ: Joel Arce pointed out that the police seemed to treat protesters of color very differently over the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOEL ARCE: When the Black Lives Matter protests were going on, they were complaining about all the protests and how - like, how they were crazy. But, like, now they're protesting but doing it, like, five times to 10 times worse. Like, they're breaking into the Capitol, breaking windows and everything.

KAMENETZ: He said that it seemed more like a riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOEL: A protest is supposed to be, like, calm and, like, you trying to prove a point. That's not proving point by breaking into the Capitol, you know? You're not really proving anything.

KAMENETZ: Urbach gave the students more vocabulary words, like sedition and coup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URBACH: A coup is a sudden violent and illegal seizure of power from a government.

KAMENETZ: Amber Colon said she had tried to tune out what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMBER COLON: I find the news kind of scary. But I do remember seeing a video yesterday about how this lady tried to storm it, and then the cops pepper sprayed her.

KAMENETZ: No doubt, people of all ages are finding this moment extremely scary. But experts say caring adults can do a lot to help young people cope. Urbach said his priority is that students feel like they're heard.

URBACH: I try to always make space for, like, asking questions rather than answering.

KAMENETZ: Melinda Macht-Greenberg agrees. She's a clinical, developmental and school psychologist on faculty at Tufts University. She says that parents should be honest with their kids if they themselves are struggling to process what is happening. That way, you can be...

MELINDA MACHT-GREENBERG: Modeling for kids how to be able to manage the questions, the worries, the anxiety as they're emerging...

KAMENETZ: Macht-Greenberg says, watch for changes in eating, bedtime problems, raw emotions or clinginess in kids. Take breaks from the news. And keep inviting them to talk, even if they don't seem to want to take in what's happening. That way, she says...

MACHT-GREENBERG: When they are ready, they know that you are going to be a present listener.

REENA PATEL: You, as a parent, know your child best. But first and foremost, make sure they feel safe and they feel protected.

KAMENETZ: Psychologist Reena Patel says her toolbox for calm with children and teens includes breathing exercises, visualizations and positive affirmations like, I can do this. She also encourages...

PATEL: Coming up with ways that we can teach children to compartmentalize some of their worries and stress and anxiety...

KAMENETZ: Like writing them down and putting them in a worry box - speaking of writing things down, Urbach's homework assignment that day was to find an image with a caption from social media that speaks to what the kids see happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URBACH: By tomorrow, I would love to see at least one meme, a meme that helps you make sense of what happened yesterday and a meme that helps people understand better kind of, like, the situation.

KAMENETZ: He's going to keep asking his students to find their own voice in interpreting the history they are living through.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA AND J'SAN'S "OUT OF TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.