The recent events related to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have given rise to important questions about how to talk to children about issues of diversity and fair treatment in our communities. Racial trauma has the potential to affect the physical and emotional health of children (and adults) of all races.

In this important and difficult moment in our history, caregivers and educators grapple with how best to support and educate children of all races as they try to make sense of the current events. Parents may be wondering how you can begin to address racism with your child. As adults, we are all responsible for teaching the younger generation.

Here are some things adults can do to help children better understand what is happening and to value cultural and ethnic diversity.

  • Children learn from what they see and hear. You are a role model, especially for younger children. So, it’s important to pay attention to what you do and say, and especially recognize your own racially biased thoughts or language. This list of resources from UC Berkeley may be helpful.
  • Expand your own social circle to make it more diverse. Encourage your child to take part in multicultural activities to welcome and become more open to diversity.
  • Minimize the exposure that children have to the news or social media. Keep in mind that even very young children who are not directly exposed to the news can be impacted. They may be too young to understand but may still be affected by the tension or anxiety they feel in their caregivers or older siblings.

At what age can parents begin discussing racism with children?

The age of your child is going to be important as you consider how to talk to them about this.  

  • It is never too soon to address racism and racial bias. Children pick up cues at very early ages.
  • While it’s not appropriate to talk to your two-year-old about racial violence, there are other ways you can foster the value of equality in your toddler. The American Academy of Pediatrics is an excellent resource for tips on addressing this topic.
  • The recent CNN and Sesame Street Town Hall for parents and children is an excellent opportunity to sit down with your children and address the topic of racism. You can watch the town hall here.

Will talking about issues cause children to be more anxious?

Many parents worry that talking about tragic or painful events will worsen children’s anxiety. The fact is not talking about it can increase a child’s sense of uncertainty and anxiety in both younger and older children.

  • A good place to start a discussion is asking what your child knows or has heard about it. It’s also important to encourage them to ask their own questions. This will help you address their concerns without providing information that may increase their anxiety.
  • As your child gets older, you should assume your child is already aware of social issues or tragedies, even if you have not discussed it with them.
  • This article in USA Today offers a number of tips from experts on discussing racism, protests and police brutality with children.

Self-care for adults

Equally as important to supporting the children in our lives is processing these events and educating ourselves as adults. The adults in a child’s life are by far the most powerful examples and teachers.

Take care of yourself and make sure you have someone to talk to. Whether it is a spouse, an adult family member or a friend, be sure you have someone to connect with when your children are not around. That way you can express your own anxiety and fears, then you can remain calm and emotionally available to your children when they are present.

More Resources

We at Bradley Hospital recommend that you discuss the past and current events that have led our country to this point with the children in your life. It is also an opportunity to talk about what you can do within your own family to create change.  For some additional reading on this topic, visit this website.

Looking ahead

As a nation, we have overcome much in our history. It is a reminder that even during our darker days we should remain hopeful. The Dutch priest, writer and theologian Henri Nouwen once said, “Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day.” Brighter days are ahead.

For more parenting tips, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Strengthening Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (SIDE) Committee

The Strengthening Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (SIDE) Committee of the Faculty at Bradley Hospital is comprised of staff from the psychiatry, psychology, and social work and counseling  departments. Their mission is to create a clinical culture that supports the  recruitment  and retention of a provider staff that effectively reflects the diversity of the patients and families they serve. Contributing to this article are committee members Elizabeth Brannan, MD; Maria Teresa Coutinho, PhD; and Thamara Davis, MD.