How to Talk with Student-Athletes About the Attack on the Capitol

with Gabriel Villarreal, LPC

Parents, teachers, coaches, and leaders of all kind should be prepared to discuss the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. If you are actively shaping the future of this country through its children, then you cannot shy away.

As we, the adults, try to make sense of what happened in the Capitol, we cannot let our children remain lost in the chaos as well. We must not only work to make sense of it ourselves, we should also do our best to guide the next generation through this complicated situation.

And it’s urgent. These “unprecedented” times are unfortunately familiar for children under a certain age. They are inundated with biased news, provocative media updates, and a feeling of uncertainty that has spread across the country. Think about it… if a child is 10 or younger, their entire conscious lifetime has been spent in an era of political chaos and polarizing rhetoric from the very top of the political system. To them, this is normal.

This is the country they will inherit, and they are forming opinions of it today that will last a lifetime. So as we embrace this conversation with the young people we lead, here’s a framework that might be helpful.

Recap: Ask the young person if they know what happened at the Capitol. Be patient, this might be their first opportunity to articulate this out loud. Wait until they are finished. Then wait another moment, to see if they have more to share. Clarify anything that needs to be clarified, speak to them in an age appropriate manner, and do your best to answer any questions they might have.

Share: Share what you were doing, how you felt, and what it made you think to watch the events unfold. Be 100% honest and be 100% transparent. Do not begin with the desire to influence the conversation or change someone’s mind, just share what you saw and how that made you feel. Practice honesty without judgement or intention, share for the sake of sharing.

Acknowledge: The first step was asking them to recap the events. The second step should model acceptable acknowledgement of feelings and ideas, and the third step is to invite them to share their feelings as well. Was it confusing? Was it scary? It is possible they didn’t feel anything at all but are curious about why people would act that way. Wait until they are finished. Be patient. When you think they’re done wait another moment, then ask how they are feeling now. This back and forth tradeoff should make space for them to be open and vulnerable.

Listen and Validate: Practice active listening. Hear them. See them. Validate their feelings by making it clear that their feelings are understandable and their reaction makes sense to you. Because why wouldn’t they feel something? However they felt, acknowledge it.

Anchor: Ask them to hold on to the feeling they had while watching the footage. Advise them to make a mental note of how they felt in those moments. Maintaining an emotional anchor to the moment will be the barometer for how they perceive similar moments in the future. It has the potential to anchor the way they interact with their communities, their friends and opponents, how they vote, and how – hopefully – they will work to move the country in a positive direction.

These strategies provide a template but do not account for all possible variations of this or any complicated discussion. But they do provide a thoughtful roadmap.

The respectful back-and-forth, replete with active listening, genuine curiosity about their emotions and opinions, and keeping a record of the event to influence further thinking will make for a meaningful moment. There is not necessarily a right or a wrong in the conversation; rather, the openness, the willingness, the vulnerability and courage it takes to have a conversation around potentially traumatic events… that is what we can learn from this sort of exercise.

The lack of that sort of thoughtful dialogue might be exactly what leads to moments like the attack on January 6th. If we do it right, maybe we can teach the next generation, the one we are charged with leading, to be more thoughtful in the future.