Like many of us, I stood speechless yesterday as I watched rioters storm the nation’s Capitol. My daughters, ages 10 and 17, watched alongside me and were shocked, too. Feeling rattled and helpless, I wanted someone to look after me much more than I wanted to do any parenting myself.
As a psychologist, I’m used to staying levelheaded in chaotic situations. Last night was different; I was pretty much useless. I left my girls in the care of my calm and capable spouse, and spent the evening on the phone and then Twitter seeking assurance that order would be restored. I wanted the sense that there was, or would soon be, a grown-up in the room.
Today, I remembered: I am a grown-up in the room, at least around here. And focusing on that sphere is making it possible for me to join my husband in being the parent my daughters need and deserve.
I don’t need to be responsible for fixing everything; helping my girls process their sense that everything seems broken is enough. Over breakfast, I asked my 10-year-old what she was thinking about yesterday’s events and reassured her that, even though things got out of control, calmer heads have prevailed and I now feel hopeful that things might be moving in the right direction.
Being the grown-up in the room means making space for my girls’ confusion and their questions. Tonight, I will ask both of them what they heard from their teachers and classmates at school, what they wonder, what they think. I know that I won’t have all the answers to their questions, so I’ll just be honest about what I do and don’t know and everything I am still struggling to understand.
It means I have apologized for checking out last night. Had I alarmed them by reacting to yesterday’s chaos strongly or loudly, I would have apologized for that as well.
Being a grown-up means setting aside my misguided belief that compulsively checking social media or broadcast news reports will help me feel better. I have reminded myself that doing so only unsettles me and pulls me away from what I want to be present for: my kids, my spouse, my own work, myself.
It means that I need to be mindful of what media my daughters are taking in as events continue to unfold. My younger daughter gets most of her news from us or with us. We can and will limit her exposure to graphic images and frightening information. If there is something upsetting she needs to know, we should be the ones to tell her so that we can choose the right moment, share the news in age-appropriate language and be prepared to address her reaction.
My older daughter gets her news from us, with us, and also from a vast, complex and largely opaque-to-adults adolescent discourse that unfolds over social media. With her, we will do more listening than talking, seeking to make sure that she’s a critical consumer of what she’s taking in, that she’s working with facts and that she’s thinking for herself.
Yesterday, we watched TV news together as a family, pausing at one point to ask my younger daughter if the reports felt like too much. She insisted that they weren’t, and that she wanted to see what was happening. We deferred to what she knows about herself, and what we know about her and continued to watch together until we switched the television off to have dinner.
Trying to be an up-to-the-job parent as historical events unfold can leave us feeling doubly overwhelmed. Our own sense of, “Oh my God, what is happening?” quickly gives way to other worrisome questions: “How can I possibly explain all of this and fix it for my kids?”
Well, we can’t — at least not today. But to be good parents, we don’t need to. We just have to remind ourselves of the territory we control right now and be the grown-ups there.