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How to Talk to Children About Racism and Violence

2020 has proven it is more important than ever to talk to children about racism and violence. For many adults, the murder of George Floyd is like an open wound in which salt and vinegar has been poured. With images of protests over racism and police brutality, many children may have similar feelings as adults such as sadness, anger, confusion and in some cases guilt.

It is normal to feel these emotions when our well-being feels threatened, when we feel unstable, uncertain or helpless. Children are curious and yearn for knowledge. Unfortunately, many adults are uncomfortable discussing difficult topics with children. Racism and violence are subjects that must not be ignored, and it is more important than ever to talk to children about these topics.

Below are tips for parents and guardians to consider helping children understand and cope with troublesome news and images or when talking about race and violence. Unicef also offers some tips.

Respond to How They Are Feeling

Acknowledge there is a need to address what is going on. Denial can create even more confusion for the child, no matter their race. Many people are hesitant to talk to their children about racism and violence out of fear or desire to protect them from negative feelings or emotions. Whether you talk about it or not, children will learn something from your response or lack of response. They will seek information elsewhere.

Be an active observer and listener. Some children may ask questions. Others may be reserved or indifferent. Nevertheless, children can be very perceptive. It is vital to check in with your child and engage them by asking for their opinion. For example, “what do you think about the riots?” “How do you feel?” “What do you think would help?”

If a child is quiet and not saying much, especially if that behavior is new, ask about it. For example, “I notice that you are quieter than usual, are you ok?” “Would you like to talk, write or draw a picture about it?” This helps to shape and build autonomy by giving them the option to not talk if the child does not feel ready, while providing reassurance that you are available.

Like any other important subject, talking to children about racism and violence cannot be a one-time-only conversation. This requires ongoing dialogues and learning. Periodic check ins are paramount.

There are no right or wrong feelings. Perception is reality, so no matter what the child may be feeling now, it is important to acknowledge and validate their feelings. For example, you can say, “It is normal to feel worried right now,” “I feel worried too. “This is horrible.” By empathizing and being honest, they may not feel so alone.

Talk about What Children Know About Racism and Violence

Ask children what they already know about racism and violence and build on that. What exactly is racism? It usually involves the idea that one race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a racial group is inferior to others. There are many definitions to explore. If you have a real-life example to share with them, that will help. Discrimination related to racism is most likely to be experienced by children of racial and ethnic minority groups. Recognizing racism is a bit more complex for children of all races.

Keep in mind that white children may also experience some sort of discrimination and racism. It is important to talk to children about racism and violence openly to help minimize the possibility of your child being a blind victim or a perpetrator. It is equally important to discuss the history of racism in the United States and learn about it together. If you find any gaps in your understanding, for example, share that racism is imbedded in the U.S. history. Be careful to not increase the child’s anxiety level.

While it is important that children are aware of the world around them, they do not need to be privy to every detail. Witnessing scenes of racist violence on the news or graphic details shown on social media can be extremely traumatizing. Limit exposure to those platforms.

Teach Children that Violence is Wrong

Violence is wrong no matter the cause. Children are like sponges. They absorb things around them but do not have the capacity to differentiate right from wrong. That is something that must be taught. Using developmentally appropriate language, help the child understand that violence is not normal, and it is wrong.

This way, children may be less apt to use modeling and act violently against another child who may be different. Black children may have white friends and vice versa, so be careful not to allow current events to disrupt healthy relationships. Let the children know that they can still be friends despite their differences and what is going on right now. Allow zoom meetings or face time when appropriate to help them maintain their relationships. Children still need some level of normalcy, especially dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

There are many forms of violence. For teenagers, posting racist thoughts on snapchat or TikTok, Instagram, Facebook or other social media sites is a form of violence that can be psychologically damaging and disrupt relationships. Teens often repeat the ideas from their family without understanding. Talking to teens about the impact of their actions and decisions in relation to racism and violence early in life can be beneficial for all. Remember, racism is a learned behavior. No one is born a racist. Self-reflection on how you may consciously or subconsciously perpetuate racism or violence is encouraged.

Answer Questions Openly and Honestly

When questions emerge, such as why black people are being targeted or why they are protesting, be honest and open. Many attacks are due to inherent built-in racism. Why the protests? They are exercising their First Amendment right to free speech by telling the world they are not being treated equally. If you don’t know an answer, it is OK to say you don’t know and commit to helping find the answers.

Do not try to rationalize or justify violence or racist behavior. Emphasize the value of human beings. Being black doesn’t make someone bad, unworthy or inferior. Being white does not make someone good or superior. Help children know that treating people unfairly, no matter the color or race, is always a bad thing to do.

It is important to discuss the difference between a protest and a riot. Peaceful protest is OK. Rioting involves destruction of property. It is a form of disorderly conduct and it is not ok. Contextually help them understand there would not be a protest if there were fair treatment.

Talk to Biracial Children About Racism and Violence

“I am biracial, where do I fit in?” “I am not black nor white, I am both, which side do I take?” These are some questions raised by many biracial children. Parents of biracial children can find themselves at a loss when it comes to answering those questions. Biracial children may feel rejected by both groups. They may experience guilt and personalize or internalize what is going on in the United States right now.

Even talking to children about racism and violence, especially as it relates to recent tragedies, can bring about anxiety for parents and children of biracial background. Parents are encouraged to focus on teaching children about right, wrong and justice rather than taking sides. Remind children that it is not their fault and that they are not responsible.

Parents Must Take Care of Themselves

Recent and current events affecting black people in the United States are deeply upsetting for many parents, especially for parents of children of color, including me. “I have 2 black boys.” “I have black grandchildren.” “I have black nieces.” “I have black neighbors.” Statements like these are becoming common lyrics that make up the song of fear and anxiety sung daily. With the extra stress and the high level of emotions, adults must first get their feelings under control to help children. Control does not mean concealing or avoiding their feelings.

It is imperative that parents take time to check-in with their own mental health during this difficult time. The stress right now is compounded by multiple factors, including the pandemic, which may result in mental and physical exhaustion. If you’re feeling mentally drained, overwhelmed, or just unsure of what you are feeling, please reach out. Your support system may be friends, family, qualified religious leaders and /or mental health professionals. They may be able to help process emotions and form strategies to carry out healthy, productive talks with children to help them cope.

Culturally, some groups may not believe in mental health or counseling, but every culture has some sort of support system. Practice self-care by eating healthy, getting adequate sleep and exercising. Breathe by inhaling slowly and exhaling slowly (smell the roses and blow out the candles). Don’t forget to use your sense of humor. These activities have the potential to help reduce stress by restoring normal rhythms and equilibrium.

Getting Professional Help

If after giving the child space to sort through the emotions, you sense that they are still stuck, it may be helpful to reach out directly to professionals. It can be difficult for children, especially if they feel that they are starting over with each new person, to appropriately identify and express emotions/feelings. A professional perspective may help them to identify feelings sooner and they may be more open to ask questions that can help them better cope.

At home, it may be helpful for the child to start a journal. Practice being in a safe place in the house. Reassure them of parental support. Allow the child to express themselves freely, even if angry or in outburst, as long as the child is not destructive, not a harm to self or others. Encourage deep breathing, punching a pillow or just taking a personal timeout to watch an appropriate video, movie or play a game.

Talk to Children about Racism and Violence

While you alone can’t stop systemic racism or violence, talking to your children about their negative impact is a first step. Teach them to be empathetic and compassionate to others irrespective of color. Help them to process the current world around them and learn how to cope appropriately. We all have a responsibility to cultivate a healthy community, but one filled with violence and divisiveness is a sick one. Together we can do better. Change starts with you. Let’s join hands and commit to a healthier community!


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