Three weeks into 2021, there’s been a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a second impeachment of now-former President Donald Trump, a pandemic still claiming thousands of lives a day and tanking the economy, and unresolved issues of racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
It’s a lot for anyone to take in, but especially for kids, whose brains are still developing. They’re also dealing with hormonal changes, social pressure, and the unpredictability of Zoom school.
“We're all kind of feeling the compounding effects of everything,” says Aerika Brittian Loyd, a developmental psychologist at UC Riverside, where she directs the Youth Health and Development Lab. “And so if you know that it's affecting us as adults, we know that it's affecting children.”
Loyd says children and adolescents may not be able to express and articulate exactly how they’re feeling, so it’s important to watch for signs, like exhibiting a range of emotions.
“They might be feeling things like fear, confusion, anger, indifference. But they may not be able to say, ‘I'm feeling afraid because of everything that's happening,’” Loyd says. “Or we might see the expression of what we call ‘somatic symptoms.’ So it comes out in other ways, things like difficulty sleeping, crying, or a stomach ache. … It’s just a way their body is experiencing stress.”
Kate Messner, a young adult author and former middle school teacher, says she finds the kids she’s talked with lately are aware they’re living through history. And since many of them aren’t learning in a physical classroom or interacting with their friends, once you add the stress of this political unrest, it weighs on them.
“When I talk with teachers and parents about this, sometimes people have a desire to say, ‘Well, I'm not going to talk about that with the kids, I want to protect them from all of this.’ That's not really how this works. They have questions,” Messner says. “And from my perspective, as an educator, as a parent, as someone who has the privilege of writing for kids, I always believe in telling them the truth in a way that's developmentally appropriate.”
Loyd says it’s important to express authenticity, and for parents and teachers to acknowledge that they may also be afraid. Messner agrees, saying you have to find a balance between not spiraling into negative emotions, but also not being phony about it.
“In my experience, talking with young people, there's nothing scarier to a kid than when the adults they love are pretending everything is fine, and the kid knows it’s not,” Messner says.
When it comes to talking to kids about racial justice and COVID-19, Loyd says organizations like Teaching to Tolerance, Embrace Race, Child Trends, and Sesame Workshop have all published reports, activities, and guided conversations to help parents and educators.