Mommy, What's a Protest?

A baby crying when a stranger comes too close. A school-aged boy stomping his feet when the Nintendo must be turned off. A teenager slamming the front door because of a bad grade at school. An adult yelling at the TV because of an unfair strike against their favorite baseball team. All of these emotional expressions are, in essence, protests. Voicing frustration, irritation, anger, or other troubling feelings is a normal and appropriate response to when things don’t go your way. Protesting is a healthy way of dealing with the ups and downs of life, relieving stress and anxiety and, in the end, helps us to feel better and move forward.

In this moment, our country is protesting. We are reckoning decades, if not centuries, of inhumane and abhorrent injustice causing a tsunami of painful emotions, civil unrest, and activism. These protests against our history and current events are the necessary recourse needed for change. And although these protests are warranted, they may still be very scary to children. So how can parents help their children understand what is going on? And further, how do parents help their children be open-minded and adaptable for the changes necessary for today and the inevitable change that comes in the future?

Understanding what a protest is and why people protest can help alleviate anxiety and stress for children. The age of your child should help guide parents on what is developmentally appropriate for their children to know in regards to current events. In our last blog we discuss traumatic news and events, how such stories impact children of various ages, and how parents can respond to help their children. If your child hasn’t come to you to discuss these issues, there is no need to bring it up yourself. It’s important to follow your child’s lead on these matters. When parents discuss unsolicited topics with their children, it may cause unnecessary anxiety.

For children under seven years old, try to shield them from current events as they are much too young to understand what is happening. For young children who have seen or heard events, a simple explanation followed by reassurance and endless comfort will help alleviate their anxieties. It may sound something like:

‘I know that was hard to see/hear. Sometimes people get very upset and need to express their feelings. Expressing your feelings is a very healthy thing to do. It may feel scary because they have big feelings, but Mommy and Daddy are here to take care of you and to protect you.’

School-aged children will likely have more exposure to events from TV, the Internet, friends, etc. If possible, avoid and shield the brutal details of current events, as children’s thinking at this age is still concrete and they may have a hard time understanding that not all police officers are bad or that the protests are not happening around the corner. Scaring children only causes nightmares, insecurities, and anxiety, and does little good to explain the real issues at hand.

If your child has seen or heard traumatic events, like police brutality, provide a straight forward explanation, then follow with reassurances. It may sound something like:

‘What happened was really awful and scary. It was wrong what happened and I’m sorry you had to see that. Mommy and daddy are here to make sure you are safe, to talk about it if you want, and if you need a cuddle.’

If your child wants to talk about protests, listen carefully to what they have learned and be sure to set the facts straight. Be an active listener and help them evaluate what they have learned. It may sound something like: