Talking to children about racism: The time is now
Horrific events like the killing of George Floyd and the protests and civil unrest that followed graphically illustrate how racism and discrimination harms everyone in our communities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics condemns racism in all forms. And pediatricians are deeply concerned about the effects of racism on children. Even vicarious racism -- secondhand racism witnessed through social media, conversations with friends or family, or media images -- harms children's health.
As a parent, you must assume children of almost any age are hearing about what is happening in our nation today. They may overhear adult conversations, see a video on YouTube, or watch news coverage of violent protests. They may feel afraid for their own safety or their family's safety. They might have questions about what the protests mean, why people have been killed by police, and if they are safe.
Ideally you can talk with them first, in ways they can understand, before they hear about it from other sources.
Ask what they know, what they've seen, and how they are feeling. Tell them you understand their feelings and reassure them it's normal to feel these emotions. You know your child best and what information they can handle. For younger children, tell them what you are doing to keep your family safe. For preteens and older children, ask if they've ever experienced mistreatment or racism, or seen it happening to others.
Watch for changes in your child's behavior. Some children may become more aggressive, while others will become withdrawn or scared. If you are concerned your child may be struggling with anxiety, fear or distress, call your pediatrician or mental health provider for additional support. Some additional tips:
• Limit what your child sees in the media. Do not leave the TV on in the background. With older children and teens, watch with them and talk together about what you're seeing. Listen to their observations and share your own. Use commercial breaks, or pause the video, to have brief discussions. With younger children, limit TV, smartphone or tablet use, especially when the news is on. Make sure the media they do see occurs in a common area where you can check in.
• Be aware of your own emotions. As an adult, tune into how you are feeling and check that you are OK. If you are not, ask for help to deal with the trauma and emotional impact of these events and images. Make a list of your own coping strategies, and when you need to use them, tap into that list.
• Use this teachable moment. For all families, this is an opportunity to discuss the history of racism and discrimination in the U.S. and help your children discover ways to make change.
• Resources can help. If you struggle to find the "right" words, try using books or other resources to share with your child. Remind your children that no one is perfect, talk about what you are doing to be anti-racist, what you have learned, and how you as a family can step up.
It's OK to acknowledge that people are treated differently based on the color of their skin and where they live and share examples of this happening. But this is also an opportunity to show your children how to make a positive difference. For example, perhaps your family can call your city council member or superintendent to advocate for issues faced by communities of color. Think about how you might confront your own biases and show how you want your children to respond to others who may be different from them.
These are conversations that many black American families have had for years. But if this is not something your family has discussed yet, what is happening right now is a teachable moment.
If we are to progress in this country, it's going to be because we help our children, adolescents and young adults learn not just that racism exists, but that it is something all of us can work together to dismantle.
For more information, go to HealthyChildren.org.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Jacqueline Dougé is a pediatrician and creator of What is Black, a blog and podcast that helps parents raise black children and teens. Dr. Nia Heard-Garris is a pediatrician and a physician-investigator at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and in the Department of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. To check out more information, please visit HealthyChildren.org.