How to Discuss the Traumatic Events on the Capitol With Kids and Process It as a Family

parent talking to child about traumatic events

Graphic created by Denzel Boyd for COURIER.

By Carli Pierson

January 8, 2021

What to know to help your kids process traumatic events as you might be struggling to process them yourself.

Danielle Bridges’ 10-year-old daughter has always been sensitive. As a Black child living in a majority white suburb of Chicago, she distresses over her family’s safety. After the violent domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, she’s even more concerned.

“My daughter worried if we were going to get hurt,” Bridges, of Edgebrook, Ill., said. Her 16-year-old son couldn’t believe the pro-Trump terrorists were allowed to breach security at the Capitol and gain access. “They would have killed Black and brown people if they did this,” he said.

During Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol, police officers appeared to stand by peacefully while white supremacists, emboldened by the president’s own words and actions, desecrated the seat of this nation’s democracy. In contrast, over the summer, Black Lives Matter protests were met with the national guard’s full military might. Indeed, the message was loud and clear for people of all ages watching the events unfold in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. The belligerently racist underbelly of this nation continues as strong as ever—and America’s white supremacist movement exists wholly unrestrained by federal and local governments.

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Americans and the rest of the world have questions about Wednesday’s historic violence, and parents and teachers will need help processing the trauma with children for a while to come. Two experts in trauma and healing told COURIER how to talk about traumatic events, like the ones we are living now, while processing the trauma ourselves.

First, Balance Yourself

Eutimia Montoya is a Chicana, indigenous healthcare practitioner in Denver, Col., highlighted the importance of having healing activities for everyone in the family to express emotions like rage dancing to get out powerful emotions. “For rage dancing, I set an intention to release a lot of stuff so that I won’t release it at my partner, at my children, or at my mom,” she said. “My intention is to release that trauma and move physically to process emotions with my body.”

For Black and Indigenous people of color specifically, Montaya said there’s an added consideration: “Our ancestors were unable to cry and hold space for that sacred rage; we must allow ourselves to hold space for that sacred rage.”

Montoya turns to Rage Against the Machine for her own rage dancing, but for children, she said to put on any music that children feel called to.

Release Emotions Physically

“It’s very personal, holding space for the fact that we have emotions and setting intentions to feel and release and work through those emotions with our body.” Montoya also suggested a pillow fight, a dance party, a cake baking day, or something else that you and your family enjoy that’s physical.

She also suggested turning off all the inputs of “caca energy” (or poop energy). “Especially as someone who was raised in a community of people who were disenfranchised, the understanding is that the outer world is a dangerous place,” she said. “But in your home, you can control your inputs; you create the energy you want with your family. Be careful of how you curate that energy. Don’t have Trump blasting his hate on the television if you don’t want that hate in your home.”

Montoya also recommended practices that connect you to love and kindness and emphasized the importance of involving your children in those practices.

Have Honest, Age-Appropriate Conversations

I also spoke with Dr. Karol Darsa, a licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of trauma and author of the “Trauma Map: Five Steps to Reconnect with Yourself.” She gave me some specific pointers about how to talk with your children about traumatic events. Dr. Darsa told me that the most important thing to keep in mind is your child’s age. “The younger they are, the less they should know. As they get older, they will want to know more and will be more interested in current events.”

Like discussing any other tragic event, Darsa said there are some basic guidelines for speaking with children about trauma. “My first rule is to keep kids away from the trauma and stress as much as possible,” she said. “If you’re having a tense conversation, then keep kids away. If the children are young, then make sure to watch the news when they aren’t around.”

As for older children, she said, “If they’re older and they’re going to find out about what is going on from someone else, like in a message or on the internet, then it’s better if they hear it from you.” Darsa also emphasized that if kids of any age have a question, just give them one answer: she warned against getting too in-depth or giving lengthy, complicated, and confusing answers.

Without a doubt, the violent insurrection that took place in the nation’s Capitol on Wednesday was deeply upsetting to millions of Americans regardless of political affiliation, religion, race, gender, or many other conceivable differences. But for people of color—and especially Black Americans, who have historically been targeted by lynch mobs that looked terrifyingly like the one we saw bear down on the halls of Congress—Wednesday was the bone-chilling culmination of an administration that for the past four years has implicitly and explicitly supported domestic terrorists that want to bring us back to the time of human enslavement.

Micah Russell, 17, of Irving, Tex., feels like the insurrection has been “brewing since Trump’s presidency and escalated with this last election.” The images of white vigilante mobs, confederate flags and a hangman noose on the grounds of the Capitol will stick with him for a long time.

Speak Reassuringly

Darsa also suggests keeping in mind what’s important to most kids when speaking with them about traumatic events, “Most kids want to know whether they and their family are going to be safe,” she said. “It’s important to give them information without overwhelming them.

Some children have already experienced racism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of hate as early as elementary school. Understandably, they might feel less safe than their peers. Do not minimize those concerns, as what happened on Capitol Hill was a genuine threat to marginalized people. But, do embrace your child’s emotions of the events while offering comfort and security.

“As parents, we have to be centered and calm,” said Darsa. “We want to be precise, acknowledge what is happening, and answer their questions, but focus on assuring them that they are safe.”

Families like Bridges’ cannot escape the harsh realities of race intersecting with politics. They’ve always discussed such matters. “We talk a lot in this house about injustices and hypocrisy,” she said. And they will continue to do so.

This attempted coup and the significance behind it will be with children of all ages and backgrounds for years to come. Parents can embrace this tough conversation knowing that they aren’t alone in struggling with it.


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