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Speaking to children about race: advice from a pediatric mental health expert

Posted on Jun. 18, 2020 ( comments)

Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an equally threatening and devastating hardship: racial discrimination and social injustice.   

Families are attending protests, discussing the news and having important conversations about these vital topics. Children who are witnessing these events are asking questions and expressing confusion, curiosity, sadness and anxiety about what they’ve seen and heard.  

The following guidelines are offered to help you continue to explore these concepts with your family in productive ways.  

Talking to your children about race is important 

Socialization is how children learn about race and ethnicity. These messages include things said and unsaid, things done and not done as well as emotional reactions. Parents and family members are the first models regarding important concepts of race and equality.  

Conversations about race should not be avoided, as racial and ethnic socialization is constantly occurring in a child’s life. When participating in these conversations, children are provided an opportunity to learn respect all groups, better understand their own race and that of others, and to respond appropriately and supportively during racially charged situations.    

Teach, model, ask and listen   

Talking about race might feel uncomfortable at first. Normalize it by sharing with your child that it’s an important topic. When parents avoid talking about differences and discrimination, children learn that the topic is taboo. When talking about racism, parents should acknowledge that racism exists and must be addressed, as well as provide truthful information.   

It is important to model acceptance and compassion as children will take their emotional cues from significant adults in their lives. Language that is developmentally appropriate is important so that children can understand and apply what they are learning. Parents should teach children to question statements that are stigmatizing, are not factually supported, or which overgeneralize qualities or attributes to an entire group of people.   

When sitting with your child, a good place to start is by asking what they know. Correct misinformation and keep asking questions. Learn about situations children have been a part of or have witnessed. What happened? Why do they think the events are happening? What is the issue? What does it mean to your child? How would they like things to change? How might they act, seek support or support others in this situation?  

Meet them where they are   

Children enter the conversation about race at different stages but begin to understand similarities and differences from a very young age. Once you understand what your child knows, lean into and build upon the conversation. Listen to feelings. Explore misconceptions and inaccuracies. 

With very young children, it may be necessary to enter dialogue simply by discussing differences among human beings. These may include hair color, eye color and skin color, among other attributes. Focused conversations with children 3 to 5 years old should focus on acknowledging and celebrating differences. Activities may include reading books about various cultures and ethnic groups, playing multicultural music and trying multicultural foods.   

School-aged children are more in tune to racial and ethnic differences and are likely to begin noticing differences when individuals are treated unfairly. To enhance appreciation and celebration of race and culture in school-aged children, read books highlighting the beauty of all people, both those of similar heritage and culture as well as those of others. Encourage curiosity and comfort with difference, as opposed to anxiety and fear. Take trips to heritage museums and teach important facts about culture and race.    

It’s also important for parents to acknowledge that people may judge others based on skin color (or other differences) and to discuss this with your child. Offer guidance and direction about the concepts of “fairness” and “justice.” Begin to discuss the impact that positions of power may have.  Encourage children to speak up and seek support from you and other safe adults when they or others have been treated unfairly. 

For adolescents and teens, continue the dialogue about race; discuss how your teen and others have been treated in various situations. Discuss strategies for addressing and speaking up for anyone who is being harassed, bullied or unfairly treated or blamed. Discuss how it would feel to be blamed unfairly by a group or association and what the long-term impact of that might be. Explore fears of speaking up and consequences of remaining silent.   

Keep having conversations  

Children need time to think and process. Revisiting the topics of race, justice and current events helps keep lines of communication open.  Discrimination and racism are longstanding issues and our conversations must be frequent. For some children, this may be one of the first times they have truly considered the concept of racism. It’s important that they be made aware that racism has existed for centuries. 

First, get an understanding of how your child feels — scared, angry, anxious? Provide context and explain why this is happening. Share that most people and protests are peaceful. The protests are happening across the country, and even in other parts of the world. Focus on the fact that most people (more than 75 percent of Americans) want to create a more fair and just system for black Americans and other people of color. 

Then, keep talking. When children notice differences between themselves and others, talk about it. A five-minute chat in the car can make a big impact in your child’s understanding of justice and race dynamics.  

Take action in your community  

Your children may want to act for justice. Applaud their sense of fairness and help channel that energy toward actions that are age and ability appropriate.    

Here are some ideas:  

  • Use art. Kids can’t always express themselves though words. Use watercolors inside and sidewalk chalk outside to draw images for justice. Convey emotions like love, peace and friendship. For children who can write, consider making signs they can put up in their bedrooms or in prominent places in your home.  
  • Contact family friends and ask to chat. Have a video call to talk about your feelings, ways to help and how to create impact in your community. Some ideas might include more inclusive playground play, craft projects and having a bigger conversation with classmates about race and justice.  
  • Find a neighborhood protest. With a little internet research, you can find a small gathering of people protesting while observing social distancing guidelines. Don’t forget to wear your mask!  
  • Continue speaking up and speaking out. Encourage your children to call attention to acts of racism when they encounter them. Using words like “please stop” and “please use kindness” can be a great place to start. 
  • Limit social media time. If your child is active on social media, consider monitoring what they experience so that you can discuss it. Also consider limiting the amount of time your child spends on social media. Despite best intentions, the number of messages on social media can be stressful and overwhelming, potentially leading to anxiety and depression.  

Most of all, recognize that you’re standing in the doorway of opportunity. You can shape your child’s understanding of race and justice while helping them navigate the complexity of our culture. You are not expected to have all the answers, but you are the example that your child will follow.   

Step into this opportunity and take every available moment to demonstrate kindness and advocate for each individual’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. You and your child will benefit, and so will our world.  

Learn more about what MultiCare is doing to address racism and injustice.

Help provide access to care and support for all children by making a donation to Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation.

About The Author

Chris Ladish Dr. Chris Ladish, Chief Clinical Officer
Dr. Ladish is the Chief Clinical Officer, Pediatric Behavioral Health, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Network  More stories by this author
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