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How to Talk with Kids About Racism and Racial Violence

It starts with checking in on yourself, and then listening deeply.

Our kids are still feeling the impact of the pandemic, including its disproportionate impact on people of color. And they continue to see violence aimed particularly at Black lives in a constant stream of images and posts on TV and social media. "As much as you want to keep it in the background, it's not in the background," writes pediatrician Jacqueline Dougé, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on effects of exposure to racism, and racialized violence. "It's having direct health effects on kids."

So how do we talk with kids about big, important topics like racism? What you say depends on your experience, but here are some guiding steps for you to consider as you talk with your kids about tough topics:

Check in with yourself first

Caregivers who have been coping with ongoing stressors are stretched thin and in need of support. Are you numb? Are you overwhelmed? Before we focus on what we tell our kids, what do we tell ourselves? How are you staying well? And if you aren't well, and many of us aren't, how do you get help?

Create a safe space

Talk to kids without distraction. Find out what they know and what they're worried about, and watch for signs of distress.

Listen to our children

Listen deeply and support their actions. Don't just talk at them. Hear what solutions they're thinking about. We can support our children in leading without leaving them to clean up our messes. Many of our young people have shown the ability to tackle everything from climate change and gender equity to mass violence.

Important stuff, in small doses

While I believe it's important to talk to our children about the bad things going on in the world, if we are so lucky and privileged, then we can dole out the information to them in safer doses. The images and sounds of pervasive and chronic mass and racialized violence take a toll on our kids. Pick one event, one short clip from a protest, a social media post that resonates, or a YouTube clip of Trevor Noah's response, and use that as a conversation starter.

Cultivate stories of resilience

Let us not forget that we have been through terror and trauma before. Every family has a story of survival and of resilience. Let's cultivate those stories. Let's listen, and let's move into action with compassion and empathy. Pay attention to, create, and share narratives, images, and sounds of our joy and resilience.

Commit to action, any action

Action can be a protest, a petition, stepping in, and stepping up. But actions can be quieter, too, such as active listening, especially for White allies, to friends, to an apt podcast or audiobook, to activists, to community leaders. Follow activists on Instagram and Twitter who will inform, challenge, and educate; talk about their posts together.

I am holding on desperately and painfully to hope that things will feel better soon. We have been down this path before and we can survive together. Talking with -- and listening to -- our kids will help.

Listen to Alison Briscoe-Smith on Parent Trapped, a weekly podcast by Common Sense.

Allison Briscoe-Smith
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is a child psychologist and the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She specializes in supporting families through trauma and with racialized trauma in particular. She supports families in talking about race. She is a mother of 3 and hails from Hawaii.