How To Talk To Your Child About Protests, Riots, And Racism

If you’ve been glued to the news lately, you’re not alone. Between constant COVID-19 coverage and now the death of George Floyd, (and the ensuing riots and protests), it’s almost unbelievable what is happening in the world right now. But if you think that your child isn’t paying attention to the news while they’re playing with their toys, think again. That’s why it’s important to know how to talk to your child about protests, riots, and racism — because they know a lot more than you think they do.

“All of us are feeling scared, sad, and overwhelmed right now about the state of the world and what’s going on in our country,” says Anni Johnston, a licensed mental health counselor. “So of course our children are feeling affected and burdened by it,too.” And while your first inclination might be to turn off the TV (which might not be a bad thing, if you have it on 24/7), there’s never been a more golden opportunity to talk to your child about protests, riots, and racism—right now. The key is knowing how to approach it so that your child comes away from your conversations feeling empowered, and not frightened.

These tips can help you have those tough conversations that can lead to honesty, action, and stronger family bonds.

Ensure They Feel Safe

Your child might already be on edge from fears of catching COVID-19, to the point that they might be afraid to leave the house. And now, they might be even more scared of being outside with you for fear that they’ll get caught up in a protest. “Just like it has been important to shield young children from the more alarming aspects of COVID-19 news coverage, not all media coverage of the riots is appropriate for little kids to see,” says Katie Lear, LCMHC, a licensed clinical mental health counselor specializing in childhood anxiety and trauma. “Watching footage of a car on fire is unlikely to deepen a child’s understanding of the situation, but is highly likely to cause anxiety.” Since you know your child best, determine how much information they really need depending on their age, so that they can understand the reality of racism.

Find Out What They Know

From hearing bits and pieces of information from daily news reports to getting second-hand info from friends, it can be hard to gauge exactly what your child knows and doesn’t know. So don’t assume that they know the entire story, and talk to them instead. “Discuss some very concrete ways you are keeping them safe,” advises Johnston. “Help them to see that most protesters are very peaceful and go home when things become violent, but the news tends to focus on the most dramatic moments, not the peaceful ones.” And if your child does accidentally witness a dramatic stand off between police and protestors, explain that the police issue warnings before using tear gas and flash bangs. And most importantly, explain that the police are not using real bullet, so that your child knows that they’re not killing people.

Accept Their Emotions

Chances are, having a big discussion about what’s going on in the world is going to elicit some big emotions from your child. “Be gentle, accepting and embracing of their reactions,” says Johnston. “Balance honesty with protecting their innocence.” That way, your child will understand what’s going on, why it’s happening, and that they are safe.

Be Honest

If your child walks in while you’re watching the news (and a car is on fire on the screen), don’t lie and tell them that you’re just watching a movie. “If your children ask about the riots, be honest with them,” says Lear. “It’s okay for kids to know that, in our country, black people are often treated unfairly even by people like the police who are supposed to protect us.” While you don’t want to overload your child with information, you should answer their questions honestly so that they have the correct information. You can start by explaining that people are very upset that not everyone is treated fairly, and that they are protesting because they are angry and want things to change.

Offer Some Perspective

When your child sees people yelling and screaming, they might wrongly assume that all protests (and all protestors) are violent. And that’s simply not true. “You can remind your children that most protesters are peaceful and are not causing the types of dangerous situations we’re seeing on the news,” says Lear. “Just like we did during the pandemic, we can remind children of the ‘helpers’ who are looking out for them and others in the community now.” So try to balance what your child watches by showing them examples of peaceful protests, such as people sitting down or marching through the streets holding signs—so that they know that protesting isn’t always scary.

Talk About Tough Topics

It’s hard to discuss racism. It just is. And if your child doesn’t even really understand what racism is, you might feel that the last thing you want to do is bring up an ugly subject. But that’s when you need to sit down with your little sweetie and talk about those uncomfortable subjects. “Parents need to give children the language to discuss race and racism effectively,” says Lear. “Initiating talks about racism, even if it feels awkward, shows your child it’s not a taboo subject.” If you’re unsure of how to start, Lear suggests tackling a topic like racism by telling it through a story. You can find picture books that deal with racism and social activism but can do so in a way that your child will understand.

Add Some Context

If your child hasn’t experienced racism, it might be tricky for them to understand what it really encapsulates. So help your child realize that racism isn’t something that started with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black people who have lost their lives due to discrimination. “If you’re the parent of a white child, it’s most important for your child to understand that racism is something that is happening now, not just in the past, and they can have an active role in fighting it,” says Lear.

Take Some Action

While it might not necessarily be safe for your child to participate in a protest, there are other ways in which they can show their support for black people and equality for all. “Help your child brainstorm ways that you can become more active in your community to speak out against racism and discrimination,” says Lear. “This can help build a child’s empathy and leave them feeling empowered, rather than scared.”

Create An Anxiety Tool Kit

Sure, these are stressful times, and your child probably isn’t immune to all of these external stressors. That’s why you’ll need to find a way to help your child reduce their anxiety, advises Sharron Frederick, LCSW, a clinical social worker with Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, FL. “This can consist of a special toy or blanket, bubbles to encourage deep breathing, stress ball or coloring book,” says Frederick. “These are considered positive coping skills.” You can also look for ways in which your child can practice mindfulness and help them be in the moment.

Appeal To Their Sense of Justice 

There are ways in which you can discuss racism that can make sense to even the smallest of kids. “Even a 5 year old can be taught about racism by helping them to imagine that only children with white sneakers get to have ice cream, while children with brown sneakers might not,” explains Dr. Michael Ungar, Ph.D., Family Therapist and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. “For older children, they have an acute sense of justice (“That’s not fair”) and will be very interested in conversations about racism and politics if these are held immediately after watching the news.” Then, ask your child to think of a time when they felt like they were treated unfairly and what that felt like, advises Dr. Ungar. That will help them to not just understand what others are going through, but build up their own empathy as well.

Let Them Ask Questions

If you thought that you were going to have a one-and-done discussion on racism, think again. Most likely, your child will have many questions regarding what’s going on in the world, and it’s up to you as the parent to answer them. “The more children feel free to ask questions, and the more age-appropriate information they have, the less helpless, and hopeless they will feel during these uncertain times,” says Dr. Ungar.

Encourage Their Activism

It’s not just enough for your child to understand what’s going on in the news—they should feel free to do something about it if they want to. “Get children involved doing something to make the situation better,” advises Dr. Ungar. It could be anything from writing a letter to the President to donating some birthday money or even attending a peaceful demonstration in their neighborhood. ”The more a child feels they can contribute, the more these situations feel real,” says Dr. Ungar. “In fact, children’s sense of empathy and willingness to act philanthropically towards others is usually built on real experiences.” When they can experience the results of their actions, it will only increase their awareness of what’s going on in the world and help them to know that their decisions have had an impact.

Discuss The Differences

In the days since George Floyd’s death, there have been a wide variety of public reactions, from peaceful protests, to violent riots, to looting. So it’s critical you’re your child understands the significance of each one and knows which ones are right—and which are wrong. “Looting is different than protesting,” says Dr. Colleen Cira, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and women. “Some of the looting is happening due to opportunists who could care less about the cause, and some of the looting is happening because people are aware that violence is one of the tried and true ways of getting things done in America, for better and worse.” That’s why Dr. Cira suggests explaining to your child, particularly if they’re older, the difference between the two, and that in some cases, sadly, legislation can sometimes be put into law after violent protest or riots, such as the ones that we’re seeing today.

While the news can be a scary thing to watch lately, there are ways to make it better for your child. Remember, your child is watching you to see how you’re reacting to what’s going on. Be sure to have open discussions with your child about what you’re watching as a family. That way, your own strength and character can affect them in a more educated and positive way.

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