How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism and Discrimination

How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism and Discrimination
Multiculturalism News & Information

How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism and Discrimination

Many of us are struggling with grief, helplessness, and, for families of color the additional historic and racial trauma over the events of the last few weeks. The deep pain and grief are stirred when we are reminded by the news about what seems like the endless black people, Latinx people, indigenous people, and other people of color being harassed, assaulted, and murdered across this country. This includes the City of Austin, where Mike Ramos was shot and killed by APD in April.

Families of color have no other option but to have continuous conversations about race and identity with their children. The events of the last few weeks are calls to action to encourage *all* families to have continuous discussions about systematic and individual racism. When we talk about race and identity, we must educate ourselves first and not rely on our black friends, family, and community members to educate us. In order to do that, we need to read books by authors of color and read history books from black, indigenous, Asian, and Latinx perspectives. 

Here is a basic guide for helping children process instances of murder at the hand of police (e.g. Breonna Taylor, Mike Ramos, and George Floyd) or by civilians with racial motives (e.g. Ahmaud Arbery):

BEFORE: Check-in with yourself. Are you in a calm emotional state to hear what your child is hearing, thinking, and feeling? Are you able to take deep breathes when you need to calm yourself back into that emotional state? Are you and your child in a good environment to talk in which neither one of you will get distracted; that includes a phone, tv, computer, or any other screen? If you are feeling highly emotional about what is going on, it’s completely understandable and I invite you to take care of yourself before talking to your child. It’s essential to role model caring for your emotional and mental wellbeing for your child.

First: Inquire about what they know. What are their friends saying? Did they overhear family members talking about the news? Did your child overhear the news? Give them the chance to retell what they heard. When they misheard something or get confused, wait until they are done retelling what they heard and then gently correct them. A gentle correction might sound like: “I remember you said that the police officers were arresting George Floyd for murder. Actually, George Floyd didn’t hurt anyone. He was being arrested for possibly having a fake $20 bill.”

Second: Notice how your children are reacting and feeling as they retell what they’ve overheard. Check-in about how they feel and validate their feelings. This could sound like, “I noticed you were going quiet when talking about what happened to George Floyd. It made me curious about how you are feeling right now.” If they don’t respond to “What are you feeling?” then ask, “What are some of your thoughts about the story?” Sometimes, kids will talk about their thoughts before their feelings.

Third: After taking the time to talk about their feelings and thoughts:

a. Thank them for sharing their thoughts and feelings with you! Honor the fact that this is a difficult subject to talk about, for adults and kids. But difficult topics are often the most important topics to talk about and process, even when they make us feel really big (or overwhelming) feelings.

b. Empathize where you can (e.g. “you said that you are feeling angry, I feel angry too.”)

c. Open yourself up for more conversations. “I am always here and ready to listen anytime you have questions or want to talk about racism, discrimination, violence, your feelings, and anything that seems hard to fully understand. Even adults struggle to talk about these topics, which makes them more important to talk about and think about together.”

IF they shut down, get uncomfortable, say that they don’t know anything, or don’t seem ready to talk and listen right then, switch it up! Spend time connecting and bonding with them by playing a game, go outside, cook together, or do something to engage with them.

BUT Circle back to the topic at another time when they seem calmer and more open to talking. A great way to engage is with an age-appropriate book instead. After reading the book about racism and discrimination, talk about what they noticed about the story and what the character might be thinking and feeling. Processing someone else’s feelings and thoughts, even if it’s a fictional character, can start the building blocks to being able to recognize those emotions and thoughts in themselves and other people. You can do this by watching with your child an age-appropriate movie or TV show as well. In any case, I highly recommend that the authors, screenwriters, directors, and people involved are people of color telling their own stories.

AND Keep yourself open to continuous, on-going conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and various cultures and identities outside of your own unique culture and experience. In doing so, acknowledge where you and your family are privileged. Here is a guide from the University of Southern California’s Social of Social Work: The MSW@USC Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power, and Privilege.

We all need to be askable, knowledgeable, safe adults in which all of our children can turn to when they have questions, whether it be about sexual health, identity, or race and ethnicity.

For parents who are struggling to know where to start, here are some resources:

For Parents: 

Acknowledgments: In writing this blog post, I was honored with the feedback and additional resources from my former Magellan International School colleagues, Jacalyn Helms, Mara Mindell, and Darrell Greenfield. All three of these individuals have been active members of the Magellan community and have brought cultural awareness to the forefront and deepened the conversations around race, discrimination, and privilege.

About the Author: Colleen Brunell, LCSW is the former School Counselor at Magellan International School and currently has her own mental health practice for children and early adolescents, Colleen Brunell Counseling. You can reach her by email at colleen@brunellcounseling.com.