How To Talk to Kids About What Happened on January 6, 2021

If you're feeling emotionally exhausted and unsure of how to talk to your kids about the Capitol attacks on U.S. democracy by a mob of domestic terrorists waving Trump flags, here are some simple ways to tackle the tough topic.

An image of pro-Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Photo: Getty Images.

January 6, 2022, marks one year since the domestic terror attack in which an armed mob of white supremacists took over the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to curb lawmakers from certifying the 2020 election results. In the midst of the assault on democracy, at least four people died. As we look back at these events, it's totally normal to find yourself facing a mix of dread and uncertainty around how to tackle the topic with your child. But as daunting as it might feel, experts say it's important to create a safe space to communicate with children about the crisis and how it illustrates what racism looks like in action.

As a parent, it's natural to feel protective and want to insulate your child from stressful news, but it's best not to shelter kids from the truth, says Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist in Wilton, Connecticut. "Rather, we want to be able to present it to them in a way that's age-appropriate, so we can help them understand how to process their feelings in a healthy way," she notes.

Here's how parents can speak to their children in an age-appropriate way about the violent events that occurred in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, according to experts.

1. Hold Space for Your Child to Talk About Their Feelings

"We always want to start with what kids know and how they are feeling," says Feliciano. "Make sure that you are in a calm place, so that you can hear and focus on what they are expressing as well."

In other words, any conversation on an emotionally sensitive subject matter requires specific focus time. "You don't want to do this while you're cooking dinner or multitasking," says Feliciano. "Then listen and listen some more. We want to give them space to express what they are feeling."

She recommends getting the ball rolling by saying something like, "Tell me a little bit about what you saw or heard from your friends went on in Washington last year? How did you feel when you saw that?"

Just because someone has power or a title does not mean that their actions should always be respected.

From there, you can let your child guide the conversation, based on their knowledge and concerns.

2. Emphasize That They Are Safe

After they've opened up, you'll want to reassure them of their safety. "Let them know that, as the adults in their lives, we will do everything we can to keep them safe and that they are safe," says Feliciano. "Acknowledge that these things can be scary, and even as adults we often feel scared, and that's normal and OK."

Black children and other children of color may be particularly affected by the violence they witnessed through media and images of the events at the Capitol. Exposure to race-based terrorism and violence triggers traumatic feelings for people of color, a phenomenon called vicarious racism, which threatens their sense of safety.

Sonia Smith-Kang, mom of four and co-founder of Culturas, notes on the organization's Instagram, "I share with my kids that one of my goals as their parent is to try and keep them safe, so I will do everything in my power to do so."

3. Offer Facts and Open-Ended Questions

After you've given your child the opportunity to talk about their emotions and reassured them of their safety, you can go over the facts about the domestic terror attack at the U.S. Capitol in simple terms, suggests Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries.

If you're looking for guidance on which facts to note and language to use, PBS has released a helpful classroom resource that includes a video of Trump supporters taking over the capitol building, summaries of the events, and open-ended questions that you and your child can review together.

A few examples:

  • "Why are the events at the U.S. Capitol being referred to as an insurrection rather than a protest?"
  • "How would you describe the event?"
  • "What should happen to the individuals who stormed the Capitol?"
  • "If you were a lawmaker in Congress right now, how would you address your constituents about the events at the Capitol?"

4. Break Down the Different Actors

How to talk about the protestors, rioters, and domestic terrorists: When addressing who the rioters were and why they stormed the U.S. Capitol, Feliciano suggests explaining that people can become very focused on the one thing they want. You can say something like, "Sometimes they lose control of their own emotions, whether it be anger or fear, and they deal with it in different ways. There were people who felt strongly that the election wasn't fair. They were upset that the person they voted for lost, and this was their way to deal with those emotions and try to make a change. But we as a family feel differently, and even if we felt the same, we may choose to handle it differently."

Acknowledge that many of the rioters were fueled by white supremacy: As Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Associated Press, "These displays of white supremacy are not new. Now it's just reached a fever pitch."

And as Aryeh Tuchman, associate director for the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, pointed out, while not all the anti-government groups in attendance on January 6 were explicitly white supremacist, many support white supremacist beliefs. "Anyone who flies a Confederate flag, even if they claim it's about heritage and not hate, we need to understand that it is a symbol of white supremacy," Tuchman explained to the AP.

Making this point can lead you into further discussion on white privilege, Black history, and anti-semitism.

How to talk about the president's involvement: If they are finding it tough to understand why the then-president, who children are taught to respect, would encourage this, you can explain that even people in positions of power have to earn respect and just because someone has power or a title does not mean that their actions should always be respected. "As kids, they have to earn respect through their actions as well," says Feliciano. "So it's important that we look at what someone is doing—not just who they are—to decide if the action is OK."

Patel notes that you use this as an opportunity to give a quick government and history lesson, too. "[You can explain that] this is why the government has three branches—to ensure checks and balances," she notes. "Remind them that there are still law and rules that will protect us."

5. Compare the Response to the Riot to Other Events Kids Recognize

In the summer of 2020, peaceful Black Lives Matter protests were met with reactions from law enforcement that looked quite different than they did on January 6, 2021. PBS recommends showing your child photos from BLM protests and the storming of the Capitol (both of which are provided in their classroom resource) and asking questions like:

  • "What do you notice?"
  • "Who is in the photo?"
  • "What events are taking place?"
  • "Why do you think the photographer took the picture?"
  • "What questions do you have?"

Feliciano, who did a similar exercise with her children, recommends talking about what motivates people to protest and how there are both peaceful and disrespectful ways to do it. You can share that there are ways in which protests can lead to people getting hurt, and unfortunately, that's what happened during the Capitol riots.

"Ask kids what they think are peaceful ways to express a difference in opinion," she advises. "How can they make change in a peaceful way?"

6. Remind Them of the Positive Moments

As troubling as the attack was, there's merit in emphasizing the fact that, at the end of the day, most people believed what happened was wrong, and they are going to do everything they can to prevent it from happening again, says Feliciano.

You can explain that despite the events of the day, Congress reconvened to certify the election results, which have been proven over and over to be valid. Feliciano advises saying something like, "We came together as a government and as a country and finished the process that was started in order to make sure that Joe Biden was inaugurated as the next president."

It also bears noting that over the past year, many domestic terrorists involved in the Capitol attacks have been held accountable and faced consequences for their actions. Federal prosecutors have charged over 700 people in almost all 50 states, and arrests continue almost daily.

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