It’s hard to talk to young kids about political chaos when we’re trying to make sense of it ourselves. My first instinct is reassurance, but when our democratic ideals are shaken to the core, it’s pretty dangerous to take anything for granted. I don’t want to scare my kids, but I also don’t want to lie.
I talked to three experts about how to make sense of the past few days — and the days ahead. Dr. Anthony Rao is a child psychologist and the author of “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms,” which examines how rising anxiety levels in the United States are eroding personal agency. Dr. Michael Thompson is a child psychologist and the author of “Best Friends/Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.” Dr. Richard Weissbourd directs the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University, focusing on prioritizing moral and social development in children.
Let your child take the lead. Every single expert said this. Don’t feel as though you need to proactively explain things to a child who simply isn’t interested. Your kid might just want to play Minecraft, not delve into a civics lesson, and that’s OK.
“The important thing is to figure out how curious [kids] are and to figure out what they already know,” said Thompson. “There are kids who think, ‘I don’t want to know that much about the adult world,’ and your [instinct] to tell them about it is misguided. They want to protect their own innocence.”
On the other hand, some kids might be intensely curious and have lots of questions. Your job is to read the room.
“You as a parent need to figure out not what to tell your kids but what kind of kid you’ve got,” Thompson said. “They are entitled not to be interested in this.”
It’s natural to want to explain away the anxiety by turning yourself into an impromptu history professor, but often the best way to protect them is by “playing detective,” Rao said, and finding out what they really want to know.
“Mission number one is letting them talk and inquire and ask them questions,” he said, not rushing to overexplain.
“The last thing you want to do is create anxiety by trying to alleviate anxiety in your kids. This is a version of ‘do no harm’ in medicine. It applies to parenting as well, and I hope it takes the parent off the hook from feeling obligated to fix things right away,” Rao said.
Remember: Kids feed off your feelings. What kids are really reacting to isn’t necessarily the news but what they see at home, Thompson said. They’ll absorb your anxiety or anger when you react to Twitter or blow up at the news. This doesn’t mean you have to walk around like a happy zombie, pretending everything is fine when it’s not. That’s impossible these days.
“I’ve reached for the analogy of parenting in a war zone. We are surrounded by a lethal threat with people dying, and to try to protect your children from that is impossible. How much do we protect our children is moot,” Thompson said.
Instead of thinking about hiding your emotions completely, take a step back and ask, “What do you know, and what are you worried about?” he said.
Then let them take the lead. They might just want to know why you’re stressed, and you can offer a short explanation unless they ask for more. Make clear that your emotions have nothing to do with them or the family.
“What they really want to know is, ‘Mom, what are you worried about?’ Then they want to go back to being a child. Don’t flood children with your anxiety,” Thompson urged.
“If you are a parent who is clearly anxious and very shaken in ways that are visible to a child, it’s important to explain why you are anxious and shaken. They could make wrong assumptions. For young kids, security is a big thing,” said Weissbourd.
Depersonalize the issue when possible. Kids might seek to personalize the news and worry that their own lives and homes are in danger based on what happened in Washington, D.C.
“They might wonder, ‘If the Capitol isn’t safe, is my home safe?’” Weissbourd said.
Emphasize the ways that you’re present and available to protect your kids. As they see these events unfold, some kids might feel their entire sense of order shaken to the core, cautioned Rao. They may wonder who’s in charge.
“They see adults behaving like children, and it’s frightening for kids. They see a breakdown, in the sense that all adults are monolithic, and that is breaking apart, maybe even within own families,” he warned. “Where is the confidence that we adults have your back?”
In these instances, families might find comfort in norms, such as by reading the Constitution together or talking about how government functions — and continues to.
“We have systems in place that are happening right now, and there is something sacred about this document. It’s comforting to read through some of that. [You can project] controlled confidence in the time of chaos,” Rao said.
Name the emotions. If your child does want to open up more, prompt them by asking them to name their feelings, said Weissbourd. Are they confused, frightened, angry?
“Young kids don’t have a vocabulary for understanding this,” he said, so help them along if they want to go deeper.
Remind them that they can always ask more questions if they need to, especially because so many kids are at remote school and aren’t in close contact with teachers. Without that daily reality, they may begin to spiral and catastrophize.
“Encourage your kids to reach out when they have a question, especially because of the isolation factor,” Rao said. If they do have more questions, he said, “Be as concrete as possible” — no need to hypothesize.
Again, Rao also encouraged parents to be mindful of voice and tone when having these conversations. The voice you use to doom-scroll Twitter alongside your spouse at night isn’t the one you want to use with your kids, even if it’s habit these days. We might not even realize how our tone comes across because we’re so used to it.
“Speak slowly. Try to control the stress in your face. Pace your breathing. How you [speak] seriously matters,” Rao said. “What you say is important, but how you say it and how it comes off and how much time you spend on it may matter more.”
Don’t make your child your stress-buddy or confidante.
Take action. Kids who feel scared and powerless — and adults, too! — can use this time to talk about ways to effect change.
“Most kids, like adults, are feeling some degree out of control and want something to do,” Weissbourd said. “It could be writing a congressperson or working on an effort to protect and strengthen election integrity,” he suggested. Find ways for your kids to feel empowered, and use this as a way to emphasize your own family’s values.
“Convert passivity to activity. It’s good for the world and can be a way for us to manage the difficult feelings we’re having about this,” he said.
Emphasize that “your family is committed to doing the work. A simple message here is about democracy: Nothing is indestructible about it. It is a brave and beautiful experiment, but we have to recommit to it every generation and protect it.”
Most of all, each expert stressed that when kids feel safe, they can get back to the business of being kids. We’re going through an absolutely horrible time, and there’s plenty to worry about — but, for the most part, our kids’ well-being doesn’t need to be on the list if we take care to preserve their innocence and answer their questions in age-appropriate ways.
“I think the vast majority of children are resilient,” Thompson said.