Tune into the news, or social media, and you’ll quickly find dreadful stories that are difficult for adults to digest. Now think about how hard it is for children and teens to process these dark moments. Over the summer, we saw horrific images of Black lives taken – or abused. In turn, we witnessed voices of young, old, Black and White demonstrators passionately making their voices heard. We also witnessed clashes between rioters destroying property and confronting police. This week, we saw extremists physically destroy the Capitol, “The People’s House”, resulting in loss of life and countless injuries. How do we explain these situations to our youth? How can we turn these jarring life events into teachable moments?
What is a Teachable Moment?
A teachable moment can loosely be defined as a lesson that can be learned from challenges – a moral of the story, if you will. There are many “takeaways” from recent events. What are some life lessons that can be explored through current events?
Perspective-taking means seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes. It requires flexible thinking, not rigid thinking. Consider the perceptions of all concerned – the Senators, police, those rioting and the citizens watching from home. We base our perspectives on the lens through which we view the world. It is important, however, that these lenses are based on actual facts, grounded in reality and science vs. altering facts to match what we would like to happen. Was the lens of the rioters based on certified counts of election results, held up by courts of law, or on conspiracy theories? To prevent rigid thinking, which may roadblock conversation and compromise, it is important to attempt to view these complicated situations from all perspectives.
When Friends or Family Have Different Perspectives
In almost any situation, it’s possible for different individuals to perceive the same situation very differently. This can be anything from calling a penalty in a football game (referee vs. coach) to the debate on wearing masks, getting vaccines, or accepting the outcome of the presidential election. Family members sitting around the same dinner table may express vastly different perspectives.
What do we want our children to learn from adult interactions? How do we move on and put differences with friends and families behind us? One helpful tool can be social prediction. This is the concept of, “If I say or do ____ then ___ may happen.” Ask yourself, Is drawing a line in the sand helpful in this situation? Does “being right” outweigh my relationship with this friend or family member? How can we agree to disagree? Most challenging situations provide adults, like parents and teachers, with the opportunity to model thoughtful decision-making and respectful actions. How adults react also opens the door for uncomfortable, though important conversations.
Most of us prefer not to lose. This relates not only to sports, but to politics and to disagreements amongst family members. Accepting defeat, being a helpful winner (or loser) and moving on, are important lessons for any competitive situation. The rioters showed a lack of grace in accepting defeat; responding in a violent manner to what they unrealistically perceived as being a “stolen election.”
Like sports fans flooding a field when they feel that a critical referee call in a championship game was unfair, In sports, the “social rules” were broken by the inability to accept defeat with grace. Even if we feel “wronged” or disappointed, it’s important to move on and decipher what is a big deal, versus a little deal. Not making a sports team or getting cast in a school play are life examples of teachable moments for coping and moving on. So, how can we help our younger generation develop the mature social skills that enable them to face defeat gracefully?
- Discuss and model how to deal with big feelings of disappointment and sadness (giving the feeling a name and using calming tools such as deep breathing and positive self- talk. Like, “It did not go the way I wanted this time. Maybe it will be better next time.”
- Explore ways to be resilient and move on
Assertive vs. Aggressive Words and Actions
How can we communicate what we want and need in a respectful way? Watching the angry mob takeover of the Capitol was frightening. New footage showed their threatening words, loud voices and aggressive tone. These people were driven by strong, irrational feelings – not logic – and therefore, were unable to control and express their intense feelings iand opinions n a safe way.
For parents of teens, you can explore the concept of aggressive vs. assertive communication with the following questions. These are teachable moments to explain the difference between hurtful vs. helpful discussions. Focus greatly on the impact that your words and actions have on others.
- Was the clothing worn by the rioters (e.g. Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt) respectful of others?
- Was the physical damage done to the building and the harm to people aggressive or assertive?
- Is it OK to express feelings with actions or words that are hurtful to others?
- How can we cope with our big feelings and express ourselves in a strong, yet safe way?
Turning Difficult Conversations into Teachable Moments
As with any situation – it is important to gauge the conversations according to your child’s specific needs and developmental level. Intense adult discussions which may result in raised voices, harsh words and tone, are best conducted away from young ears. We don’t usually “plan to have” disagreements – but may need to relocate if exchanges become heated. Children may be fearful when the adults in their lives seem to lose control. Adults may need to use calming strategies before and throughout high intensity discussions.
If your child is asking questions, try to understand what they are asking. I go back to the old story “Mommy where do I come from? The parent launches into a detailed, scientific account of the birds and the bees. The child then says – no Mommy, what hospital did I come from?”
For teens with social media access, use recent events to discuss the natural consequences of posting hurtful, dangerous, or controversial content. Not even the President of the United States is too old to have his privileges taken away for misusing social media. Again, this concept relates to Social Prediction and using a social filter before saying or doing. Basically, is what I’m about to post kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? If not, delete it and don’t post it.
The internet is full of helpful resources for managing difficult conversations. I encourage you to seize the moment and use the turbulent situations of our time as teachable moments. I hope you find the following resources helpful in your journey to raise emotionally intelligent people.
- From scholastic.com, Talking to Children about Community Violence: 12 Tips
- From commonsensemedia.org, Talking to Kids about the Capitol: Age-Based Tips
- Talking about Riots, from npr.org
- Attack on the Capitol: A Springboard for Discussion, from cnn.com
Written by Carol Miller, LCSW
Edited by Danielle Bentz, MA