How to Speak to Your Kids About Protests and Racism

June 2, 2020

    Protests have broken out throughout the country following the death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis last week.

    With images of escalating demonstrations in major cities more visible than ever on television and across social media, it can be a confusing time for children and parents alike.

    Combined with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are wondering how to explain and help their kids process the ongoing unrest around the country.

    These are some expert tips on how to speak to your kids about protests and racism.

    'A parent's first step is to take care of themselves'

    Before they can help their children navigate the tumultuous events going on around the country, parents must make sure they are taking care of themselves.

    "A parent's first step is to take care of themselves, their mental health, their emotional health. Put their oxygen mask on first before they put the oxygen mask on their child," Chicago pediatrician Dr. Nia Heard-Garris said to CNN.

    Heard-Garris, who chairs the minority health, equity and inclusion committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), explains that once a parent has reached a calmness within him or herself, "then you can parse out what's important to pass onto your child so that you're not oversharing information that may further traumatize them or make them feel insecure or unsafe.”

    Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who teaches at the University of Michigan, suggests parents first find an inner calm before discussing with children, especially because unfolding protests affect adults as well.

    "Vicarious trauma through screens is real, especially for marginalized communities who may have experienced similar actions first-hand," Radesky said to CNN. She suggests parents find use deep breathing, re-grounding exercises and other positive activities, before playing with or talking to kids.

    Don’t watch the news with your infant — but you can begin teaching them about systemic racism

    While infants younger than three years of age won’t have a full grasp of events they see in the news, Radesky says they can still recognize “fear, urgency, or anger in people's voices and behaviors.”

    To prevent stress in your toddler, avoid watching or listening to the news while your baby is in the room.

    However, experts say that racial bias can emerge at a young age. According to a commentary on talking to children about race co-authored by Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, a Maryland pediatrician, and Dr. Ashaunta Anderson, a California pediatrician, a baby’s brain can pick up on racial differences as early as six months. Between ages two to four, toddlers can internalize racial bias.

    Because many children are set in their beliefs by age 12, parents have "a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding," according to Dougé and Anderson.

    To take the first step in preventing systemic racism in your child, parents can start by exposing their children to books that feature brown and black kids as protagonists and in a positive light.

    Listen and respond to what your elementary schooler feels

    While it is advisable to limit the exposure of this younger group to this type of media, parents should be available to discuss what their young ones see or hear.

    Even with reduced exposure, children will likely still encounter events that are going on, whether through overheard adult conversations, exposure to social media or discussions with friends.

    California pediatrician Dr. Rhea Boyd tells CNN that parents can broach these events with their kids. "Parents who have not already, should proactively engage their kids around these distressing events," she said. "Ask them what they know and what they've seen. Ask them how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and let them know what you are doing to keep them safe -- be it in your home or your community."

    Get more nuanced with your adolescents and high schoolers

    By adolescence — especially around high school age — children are no doubt familiar with protests and racial inequality.

    Allowing your teen to ask questions can be a good way for parents to see what they understand and provide more nuanced context.

    “It's really important to hear their voice, but then also use books to show them images of historic protests,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, told TODAY. “Really start showing the history of race and racism and protesting because it's not something that's new. It's something that has existed and it's a part of our history.”

    Parents can also encourage more critical thinking of media literacy by asking their teens where they’re getting their information.

    “These are opportunities when they're starting to become independent and parents are helping them develop those skills,” Dougé told TODAY. “You're shepherding your kids so that they can become an adult that's a free thinker and can make the world a better place. I think that's what all parents want for their kids.”

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