How to talk to kids about Capitol uprising; local experts, parents weigh in

Parents and schools always have to decide how much to talk to children about traumatic events in the world. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF
Parents and schools always have to decide how much to talk to children about traumatic events in the world. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

High school government teacher explains how he addressed violence at U.S. Capitol

Children of all ages saw Wednesday’s riot at the U.S. Capitol — both the fighting and violence, as well as the temporary threat to a peaceful transition of government.

Experts are encouraging parents to talk to their kids about what happened, in an age-appropriate way, and to really listen for what kids need. Erich Merkle, past president of both the Ohio Psychological Association and the Ohio School Psychologists Association, said it’s important to reassure children that they’re safe, and can ask questions.

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“It’s not about having the magic words. It’s simply about … letting kids talk about where they’re at, what they’re experiencing and what they’re concerned about,” Merkle said. “Some adults may want to avoid difficult topics, but children often know when something scary is happening, and if adults don’t talk about it, a child can overestimate what is wrong or misinterpret an adult’s silence.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a guide to talking with children about tragic events. Across the board, they encourage asking kids what they’ve already heard, avoiding graphic imagery and being straightforward with them. How much detail you share will vary by age though.

Angela Worley of Dayton said she didn’t think her 14-year-old daughter “understood the enormity” of Wednesday’s insurrection. But she said her daughter did point out discrepancies in how some police stood by as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, compared with how some police forcefully responded to racial justice protesters last summer.

“The kids nowadays are so desensitized. All their lives, they’ve been inundated with imagery, and I don’t think it resonated with her as intensely as it did with me,” Worley said. “I had to remind her how government is supposed to work and that our words matter. … that freedom of speech and freedom to assemble doesn’t exonerate you from responsibility or consequences of your actions.”

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Scott Byer teaches American Government classes at Kettering Fairmont High School, so discussions of political tensions in class are not new.

He said he and his students covered a lot of ground Thursday — that free, fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the pillars of American democracy, how Wednesday’s uprising affects other nations’ perspective on America, and where our country will go from here.

“Students’ emotions ranged from confusion to anger, to sadness,” Byer said. “Several students were saying, ‘We are better than this.’ … and some asked, are we at a crossroads moving forward (as a nation)?

Byer said the teens had debate about how two core values of the nation (diversity and unity) work together, and whether Americans can peacefully agree to disagree on some things.

To that end, Byer said he would continue to work on a classroom culture where students feel respected, to create a platform for good debate, while also teaching students to find and rely on credible sources of information.

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Merkle said parents can help their kids understand the world by teaching them to be good citizens — to be broadly informed about the issues, to vote in elections and be involved in their communities.

For younger kids, Merkle said parents can compare America to their families. Both have leaders who set the rules (what the kids eat for dinner, or when they can play video games), and there’s a right to debate, but there can be consequences too.

Merkle said children were already going through a tough time. COVID-19 meant some kids lost family members and others lost jobs. Some children felt the violence and tension tied to last year’s social justice protests, and many children have been more isolated than usual as many schools have been closed.

“Find a quiet moment so the kids can be the center of your attention,” Merkle said. “Ask what they really want to know, and then listen, listen and listen. Share your own feelings. You’re human. Show that even though you’re upset, you can pull yourself together. This is where you want to be a role model. … Tell the truth at a developmental level they can understand. And it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.’ "

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