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Talking to Kids About Racism and Violence

Supporting children while navigating your own big emotions

Whether they see it on the news or in their own communities, kids across the United States are aware of the violent acts of racism that our country continues to confront. Many children of color have experienced such racism themselves, or seen it affect their loved ones. From police brutality against Black people to attacks on Asian American people during the coronavirus crisis, there’s a lot going on that can be scary and confusing for kids to deal with.

How can parents, many of whom are struggling themselves, help children process what they’re seeing and manage their feelings?

There’s no one right answer. That said, there are a few guidelines parents can keep in mind to help kids deal with troubling news about racism and violence.

Validate their feelings

Start by checking in with your child. Kids, even very young ones, are extremely perceptive, and they may have worries or concerns they don’t know how to express.

This will look different for every child. Kids might feel unsure what to think about people of other races, afraid of being hurt by the police, or worried that something bad could happen to their loved ones. Avoid making assumptions. Instead, ask broad questions that give kids space to talk over what they’re feeling: “How did you feel about what we saw on the news? What did it make you think about?”

For young children, drawing, painting or acting out stories with toys can be helpful tools for expressing thoughts and feelings that aren’t easy to put into words.

Do your best to meet your child where they are and acknowledge their feelings, fears or worries, even when they express things that make you uncomfortable. It’s also important to assure kids that you’re doing everything you can to keep them safe. This is especially true for very young children, who may mistakenly believe that whatever they’re seeing or hearing about is an immediate danger to them and their loved ones.

Don’t avoid talking about it

“Racism is not new,” says Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “These are ongoing problems. It’s going to take all of us changing the mentality and the mindset to work towards a better future and fix them.”

That change, she emphasizes, can’t and won’t happen without frank, open conversation — a conversation that for most people of color has never been optional. “It’s really not a choice,” says Dr. Hameed. For families of color, racism is a daily reality.

White parents, Dr. Hameed says, can help by addressing race and racism with kids early and often. Research shows that even very young children are aware of racial differences, and children can learn harmful lessons about race when it’s not discussed openly. It’s helpful for white families to see that minimizing the legacy of racism in our society by avoiding ugly truths does children a disservice. Instead, white parents can commit to educating themselves and building conversations about race into kids’ lives early on.

“It’s better to trip over your words and feel awkward than to say nothing,” says Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. She recommends planning out what you want to say in advance and keeping your expectations in check. “Race is such a big, complex topic that you might start with one point you want to make,” Dr. Howard says. “You don’t have to cover everything from slavery to modern-day police violence in one conversation. This needs to be an ongoing conversation anyway, so you can add nuance as time goes on and as your child gets older.”

Additionally, white families can make a concerted effort to represent racial diversity in the products they buy for their children. For example, parents of white children can look for Black dolls or books that feature kids of color, which can help normalize diversity for kids and spark spontaneous, everyday conversations about race.

Be clear, direct and factual

Even with young children, use clear language. Don’t say, “People are upset because some groups treat other groups unfairly.” Instead, be specific: “This is about the way that white people treat Black people unfairly.” Or: “Asian American people are being blamed for the coronavirus and people in this country are attacking and hurting them. Protests are happening because we know that treating Asian American people this way is wrong and COVID was not their fault.”

“If you expect children to read between the lines, they can miss the message,” says Dr. Hameed.

It may seem obvious, but be sure to emphasize that racial violence is wrong. It’s easy for kids (especially little ones) to think that bad things happen to people of color because the people are themselves bad. “Even if a child doesn’t explicitly tell you this,” says Dr. Hameed, “it is an easy assumption they can make based on how Black people have been portrayed and treated in this country.”

Help children understand by speaking to them in a developmentally appropriate way. Emphasize to your child that Black people and other people of color are good and that being a person of color doesn’t make you bad. Treating people unfairly is the thing that’s bad, and people of color have been treated unfairly for a long time. It also helps to give very clear information about the specific situation you’re discussing. For example: “Asian and Asian American people did not cause the coronavirus pandemic. The people attacking them are wrong.”

Talk about history, too. Kids need to know that racism is part of a history that dates back hundreds of years, Dr. Hameed notes. At the same time, you can also emphasize your hope for a better future and plan ways your family can help make that a reality.

Encourage questions — and don’t worry if you can’t answer them

Kids are likely to have lots of questions about racism and violence, and chances are they won’t be easy ones. They might want to know how racism affects them or why white people treat people of other races unfairly. These aren’t easy subjects and feeling uncomfortable during the conversation is normal — but it’s not a reason to stop talking.

By tolerating discomfort you’re modeling an important skill for your child. Be honest. You might say, “I find it really hard to talk about this. It feels scary. But it also makes me more hopeful about making change.”

When you can’t answer a child’s question, that can be an opportunity to model curiosity and learn more together. It’s also a chance to demonstrate that this isn’t about being right or being perfect — it’s about doing your best to understand a complex situation and fight injustice. Sometimes, that will mean rethinking your beliefs or owning up to things you’ve done wrong in the past. “It’s cognitive flexibility. It’s a strength,” says Dr. Howard. “You don’t have to be perfect. You’re allowed to make some mistakes. It’s just that you don’t want to make mistakes stubbornly and willfully, without listening.”

Try to be calm, but don’t hide your emotions

Children take their cues from parents, so talking to them calmly and staying factual helps them process information. It’s helpful to pick a time when you’re feeling centered and have had a chance to work through your own feelings.

At the same time, it’s important that we don’t hide our emotions from children, especially when the subject is so important. Let them know that you’re sad or angry, says Dr. Hameed, and acknowledge that it’s good to be upset by injustice, as long as it doesn’t stop you from working to make it better. That way, you’ll leave kids with a clear lesson about the family values you want to pass on to them.

If you find your emotions getting overwhelming, remember that you can step away from the conversation and take some time for yourself. “It’s okay to take a break,” says Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s okay to do some deep breathing, take care of yourself, whatever it is that helps you turn down the intensity of the emotion. Then you can return to the topic later.”

Rely on your support system

Witnessing scenes of racist violence is deeply upsetting for many parents, but for parents of children of color, it can also be traumatic. Take time to check in with your own mental health. If you’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed, reach out to your networks for support. Friends, family members, religious leaders and mental health professionals can all help you process your own emotions and plan conversations with children.

It can also help to bring in trusted allies to talk to your children themselves — having an adult perspective that doesn’t come from a parent can give them more space to sort through what they’re feeling and ask questions.

Keep the conversation open

Like any important topic, racism and violence aren’t something you can have “the talk” about just once. For kids of any age and race, this is something that’s going to keep coming up, so emphasize that you’re there for them whenever they need to talk — and keep checking in proactively, too.

“You want to set the tone that curiosity is a good thing when it comes to talking about topics like this,” Dr. Domingues says. “And make sure kids know that there’s no wrong question; you just want them to feel open about asking it.”

Explore resources

No matter what challenges come up as you talk with your kids, there are lots of great resources out there to help you continue these crucial conversations and take action as a family. Check out the following resources for further help and support along the way: