As protesters fill the streets and scenes of police brutality and racial injustice dominate social media feeds, children and adolescents are
processing messages that can ignite a range of emotions.
Your child might feel angry, sad, or confused about the events they are witnessing. They may also feel inspired, connected, and hopeful as they see large groups of people—many of them young—marching to protest systemic racism.
As a parent, you might be experiencing many of the same emotions. When you add anxiety, isolation, and grief stemming from the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and stay-home orders, this might be the greatest parenting challenge in a generation, says Ron-Li Liaw, MD, child psychiatrist and member of the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
“As parents, this is an opportunity to help your child think through his or her feelings,” says Dr. Liaw, also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone. “Validate their emotions but also help them to feel safe by letting them know you are there to listen and to protect them.”
Ask Questions and Be Reassuring
Starting a conversation about racism and civil unrest can be difficult. Dr. Liaw recommends opening a dialogue by asking questions that help you understand how much your child knows. Responses will likely vary by age. Younger children might be confused and scared by the images they’ve seen, while older teens might feel frustrated and angry.
“Ask what they know about what’s happening in the news, but also ask what their friends are talking about,” Dr. Liaw says. “What have they seen in social media, and how did they respond to that? And then ask if they have any questions that you can answer.”
Children’s reactions to racial injustice are rooted deeply in their and their family’s own personal experience. If acts of violence have your child feeling afraid for their safety or that of a family member, have an honest and age-appropriate conversation.
“There’s a balance between reassurance and acknowledging the reality of what is happening in the world,” Dr. Liaw says. “Tell your child the ways that you are ensuring their safety, and give them ideas for ways they can be safe.”
Address Your Child’s Emotions, and Yours
Children of all ages can feel a need to act, but large rallies and protests may not be safe places for them, especially considering COVID-19. Talk with your child about ways to channel that energy.
“Ask your child, ‘What is a peaceful way that we can show support?’” Dr. Liaw says. She recommends organizing a small family-friendly march around your neighborhood or encouraging artistic expression. Painting protest signs, writing anti-racist social media posts, composing a poem or song, or choreographing a dance are outlets for young people to express their emotions through action.
Parents have a unique opportunity to help children by exploring our own feelings and experiences, Dr. Liaw adds. Name your emotions. If you need to cry, don’t hide it, but also explain why you are crying. If, as a parent, you are feeling overwhelmed, remember that you are not your child’s only resource. Another trusted adult, such as a grandparent, teacher, coach, or their pediatrician, can provide important perspective and support.
Keeping the Conversation Open and Effective
Here are some additional suggestions for families to have open and effective conversations about race and racism, adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Create a time and place for children to ask questions. Follow their lead and pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues. Try to listen more than you are speaking.
- Give honest answers, and use words and concepts your child can understand. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know. Let’s learn more together.”
- Limit children’s exposure to violent or upsetting images on TV or online. Repetitive frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially for younger children.
- Help children establish a predictable routine and schedule. Children are reassured by structure and familiarity.
If your child seems increasingly anxious or distressed, and their worries are interfering with their usual daily activities, sleeping, eating, or interactions with family and friends, talk with your pediatrician or a child mental health professional about your concerns.
Additional Resources for Families
Dr. Liaw suggests these additional resources for families:
- Talking to Children about Racial Bias, from the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Terrorism and War: How to Talk to Children, from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Talking to Kids About Discrimination, from the American Psychological Association
- Explaining the News to Our Kids, from Common Sense Media
- How to Talk to Your Kids about Race, Racism, and Police Violence, from EmbraceRace
- Table Talk: Family Conversations About Current Events, from the Anti-Defamation League