Associated Press / Carolyn Kaster

Source: Associated Press / Carolyn Kaster

It is difficult for any adult who witnesses a moment in time where masses of people engage in violent behavior. When what is normal and expected boils over into disorder and mayhem, our stress response system is triggered.

Our fight or flight response sets into motion a  cascade of physiological events, from stress hormone surges, muscle tension, and a quickening heart and breathing rate. Simultaneously, emotions like fear, worry, sadness and disbelief swell within us.

Civil Unrest, or the more legal term Civil Disturbance, is defined as “acts of violence and disorder detrimental to the public law and order. It includes acts such as riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages.” And we have seen an increase in these moments more and more. When disturbing videos and images shatter our lives through the media we consume, it’s often a physically and emotionally devastating experience.

Tips for Helping Children

Reassure safety. First and foremost, reassure your children that they’re safe. However, don’t be unrealistic and claim nothing like this could happen in our community… because that’s not the truth. So, be open that unrest can happen anywhere, but that you’ll do all that you can to keep them protected and secure. 

Limit media exposure: Immediately shift the focus of media consumption away from the violent and/or disturbing images. Choose media and entertainment for your family that’s upbeat and distracting from the current events. When it comes to updating yourself by watching the news, be smart about where you’re getting your information. Be guardedly curious, and try not to accept sensational stories as factual.

Maintain a normal routine: Routines show kids and teens that while life may feel scary and stressful, home has a steady rhythm. Research tells us when you and your child are aware of the organized aspects of the day, you have a greater tolerance for unpredictability.  So, keep scheduled routines for eating meals at the same time, having a set bedtime, doing daily chores and school work. 

Reach and teach. Use the traumatic moment to connect and assess how your child is doing. Begin with open ended questions like, “What did you see happen today?” “What did it make you feel?” “What questions do you have?” This approach will help you gauge where your child is with the experience. Use appropriate language for child’s age  – and let them lead the discussion. Children often deal with trauma in chunks, meaning they may have a few questions at a time and then later, have more. Don’t overwhelm your child because you feel they may need to know more. Let your child set the pace. 

Problem solve: As you discuss the civil unrest, you can teach your child to deal with differences and conflicts by inviting questions like, “How can people get along better?” “What kinds of things can communities do to make sure everyone’s opinions are heard?” “Instead of fighting, what are other ways to share your feelings?” “How can we make sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect?” “What would you do if you were mad about something?” 

Practice gratitude: When civil unrest happens, it can be easy to fall into feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Slipping into cynicism or negative feelings about humanity are a common response. Instead, help your child find what’s good, safe or meaningful in your corner of the world. Studies show when you name people you appreciate, or things you feel grateful for, a boost of the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine reduce anxiety and sadness. So, teach your children to notice and reflect on meaningful things and people in their lives—and model this behavior yourself.

Now, more than ever, we need to teach our children to be resilient in the face of difficult moments. We also need to remind ourselves, and the generations after us, how to care for one another and reaffirm our commitment to accepting change, celebrating differences, respecting diversity and supporting one another even if we have different opinions.  

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