Alison Bellevue, Psy.D. | Director of Child, Adolescent, and Family Services
It would be difficult to find someone who was a fan of 2020. While I do not have research to support this statement, I think it is safe to say that most of us were eager to say good-bye 2020 and hello to 2021. Many of us looked towards 2021 with hope and enthusiasm. While of course we did not expect this shift to “normalcy” to instantly occur at midnight on January 1, 2021, the first month of the new year came in with a vengeance and brought continued chaos, violence and uncertainty.
The past year has provided many opportunities to practice having conversations with your children about challenging topics: COVID-19, shifting to remote school and socializing, the death of a loved one, racism. This far into the pandemic, you are likely exhausted and emotionally drained, making ongoing conversations with your children about the recent violent insurgence at the Capitol even more challenging. You may also find that seemingly hopeful events, such as the confirmation of the first woman, woman of color, and woman of Southeast Asian descent, prompt questions that are difficult to answer.
If you are a parent or an adult who has a close relationship with a child and is currently feeling lost about how to navigate these topics/moments, I hope the below suggestions help you feel a bit more confident and at ease.
- Start by listening and NOT talking. Your children have likely been exposed to more than you think they have. Give them the opportunity to tell you what they know, share their feelings and thoughts, and ask questions. Let them know that what they are thinking, feeling and doing makes sense given the current environment.
- Get curious. Do your best not to make assumptions or judgments. Ask questions and truly listen to the answers. Only correct facts, not their subjective reactions to the facts. The goal is to understand their perspective and create an opportunity for them to honestly express themselves without fear or embarrassment.
- Model emotional expression. Be honest with them about how you think and feel. It is beneficial to authentically express your emotions while talking to your children. Use, “I feel”, “I think”, and do not be afraid to show your emotions through your actions. Keep in mind that the objective is to model effective emotional expression. If you observe your emotional intensity increasing to a level that may interfere with your ability to continue the conversation or prompt your child to take care of you emotionally, take a break and return to the conversation later. If this is done, be open and honest with your child about it. Tell them what emotion you felt, what caused the intensity to increase, and what you did to bring your emotional intensity down.
- Link to values. For example, you can speak about the value of Integrity or Honesty, as misinformation fueled the attack on our Capitol. Model this value by being honest and direct with your child. Equality and Justice are other values that can be connected by discussing the racial injustice highlighted by the treatment of those storming the Capitol. You can also link this to the racism and misogyny inherent in the fact that Kamala Harris is the first woman and person of color elected to the Vice Presidency. If you are in a place of social privilege, use this opportunity to practice perspective taking and increase empathy towards those belonging to an oppressed social group.
- Take concrete action. Kids benefit from being given concrete things to do. Identifying ways your child can act in accordance with previously mentioned values will reduce your child’s fear and increase his confidence and hopefulness. In addition, help your child identify ways to use her experienced emotions effectively. Their anger, sadness, and fear are warranted-how can these feelings help them, and you as a family, act based on discussed values?
I admit that there are limitations to the above advice. The way in which you speak with children about such complex topics is significantly influenced by the race of those engaging in the conversation, the child’s age, identified gender identity, and socioeconomic status, as well as your family’s history and values. My objective in writing this was to reach as many adults as possible in order to increase the likelihood that as many children as possible will have the opportunity to discuss these topics with a trusted adult who loves and respects them. I hope you take the time to think about these suggestions and personalize them so that you feel more confident to both initiate conversations and field questions as they come at you.