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Talking to your child about racial inequality and social injustice

Talking to your child about racial inequality and social injustice

June 10, 2020 at 11:34am

Despite recent high-profile incidents of racial injustice and nationwide protests dominating the news cycles, many parents remain reluctant to address the topics of race, racism and injustice with their kids.

FIU psychology professor Jonathan Comer, affiliate of the FIU Center for Children and Families, says families who do not regularly experience (or experience the threat of) race-based discrimination, harassment, or brutality, often introduce these critical realities to their children far too late in child development (if at all).

"Parents are sometimes afraid of saying the wrong thing because there are no easy answers,” says Comer. “Others might not talk about these issues because they don’t want to frighten or upset their child.”

Comer, who has conducted extensive research on the psychological impact of traumatic events on youth, recommends having these conversations with your children and shares advice on how parents can begin healthy discussions at home.

  • Don’t avoid the subject. Initiating an age-appropriate conversation can help them understand difficult realities. If parents are silent, children will draw their own (often flawed) conclusions about what is happening and why.
  • Find out what they know. Allow them to share what they already know about racial differences and recent events before providing information. Keep lines of communication open with by making sure to respond to what your child shares with curiosity to understand, rather than judgment.
  • Validate their feelings. Let your child know their feelings are normal and that they are not the only ones who feel this way, including yourself. It’s OK to feel angry, sad, upset or scared. Help your child identify those emotions and learn how to cope with them.
  • Be calm. Children take their cues from parents. It’s OK, and can be helpful, for parents to share when they are upset. But avoid overwhelming displays of negative emotion when talking to your child. If you’re so upset in the moment that you can’t complete a sentence, find another time to make effective headway with your child. 
  • Focus on fairness and injustice. Even young kids have a natural understanding of right and wrong. Ask them how they feel when they are treated unfairly.
  • Avoid sweeping generalizations. Be careful about suggesting anything about entire groups of persons—whether police officers, white people or persons of color. These characterizations don’t reflect the complexity of the world situation. Instead, focus on systems of injustice that need to change.
  • Unplug. Set limits on how much news coverage you and your child consume, including social media. Research has found consuming large doses of news coverage can lead to anxiety and mood problems. Repeated exposure filled with decontextualized tragedy and human suffering can also foster increased cynicism, decreased compassion and empathy, and an overall sense of hopelessness. 
  • Celebrate differences. Don’t teach your child to be color blind. If your child doesn’t see race, then they won’t be able to see racism and understand what Black people and other people of color have dealt with and continue to deal with. Educate your child and cultivate an appreciation for these differences.
  • Set the example. Make sure your child sees you standing up against racism and injustice when it’s happening in front of you. This will empower your kids to use their own voice appropriately. 
  • Talk about the good. Make sure you balance the pain they see in the news with messages about the possibility of change and the community of supporters who are working together to make things better. Talk about how you as a family can be part of the solution.

“Avoiding these important conversations leaves kids unprepared for the complicated world in which they live, and it sends the message that issues of race and injustice are too overwhelming to even talk about, let alone tackle,” says Comer. “Even if you don’t know all the answers, take the time to learn and in fact, it may be something you can do together as a family.”

To continue the healthy conversation about race, families can seek additional resources on the American Psychological Association website.