Talking About Confusing World Events

As educators and parents, we have an important role in contextualizing disturbing world events like the recent violent takeover of our country’s capitol. After a year of challenge after challenge, this will require reaching into our deepest reserves of energy and resilience. But we must do what we can to provide a sense of understanding and stability amid chaos. We are obligated to take an active role in building a healthier, more just future.

Our teachers are skilled at both teaching the fundamentals of democracy and exemplifying it in words and actions. They also give voice to diverse perspectives when evaluating and processing confusing world events. They are well prepared to process these events in age-appropriate and developmentally-supportive ways throughout the coming days.

Both parents and school adults can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears. Even if your children seem to have no knowledge of recent events, they often pick up the stress and concern of the adults around them. For parents, we have assembled the following guidance:

  1. Reassure children that they are safe.
    Children worry that an event will repeat itself, that something might happen to them. Listen to and validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
  2. Make time to talk.
    Ask them what they know about events that concern them. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play to help them identify and express their feelings.
  3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
    • Preschoolers and kindergartners worry that something might happen to them or those closest to them (“Who is taking care of me?”). If possible, be near children without distraction. Stay close, use calm voices, listen and reflect back to them what you hear them say about their fears and longings. Let them know that adults are here to keep them safe. Tailor explanations to your child’s age and ability to understand to avoid confusion. Give information that’s concrete and directly related to what they know about their world. Make a book about what the family is doing, simply the story of today. Find time for therapeutic, relaxing play with sand, water, or play dough, and for physical activity. Observe children’s play, which is serious work as they process their experiences. Dramatic play allows them to pretend to be big and strong and to gain control. Be honest about your own feelings when upset, but don’t overwhelm or scare them.
    • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of home and school safety like wearing masks, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
    • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
    • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in society. They might want to create a strategy to right the wrongs, like gathering blankets or fundraising money for those impacted most severely by the pandemic or racial inequities.
  4. Observe children’s emotional state.
    Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Fear or sadness can look like anger. Regression might feel overwhelming to parents. Older children may be irritable or aggressive or have difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Look beyond the behavior to understand its function, what the child is telling us, so we can be responsive and not reactive. This tells children we are keeping them safe even when they’re anxious or sad.
  5. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time.
    However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
  6. Limit exposure to all television and screen viewing of these events, and be aware if the television is on in common areas.
    Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.
  7. Maintain a normal routine.
    Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical and emotional health. Let young children know what just happened, what’s happening now, and what’s coming next. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular nutritious meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities, but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.
  8. Take care of yourself.
    Remember to take time to process your own feelings and needs, so you can provide the comfort, reassurance, and stability that children need.