Dear Dr. Alfiee: How Do I Talk to My Kids About Race, Police, and Discrimination?

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Dear Dr. Alfiee,

There is a lot going on in the US concerning race, police, and discrimination. I want to educate my kids about race relations while still being sensitive to the fact that this is heavy emotionally. How do I talk about this topic with my kids?

Sincerely,
A concerned dad

Dear Concerned Dad,

Trust me, I KNOW exactly what it feels like to have these stressful and painful conversations with a child about race.

I vividly recall the terrifying events and tragedy in Charlottesville, VA as one of the first times I had to do this with my own children, who were very young at the time, and I remember the many other events since when I have needed to comfort them and have hard discussions.

As an African American parent, my struggle to discuss these issues is contextualized by my worries related to racial trauma and not re-traumatizing my children, but feeling compelled to educate them and teaching them how to cope. Along these lines, I share with you my own tips for parents to consider.  Above all, I encourage you to remember that you know your children (or teens and young adults) best and that the following tips are merely ideas to support you in having what may be very difficult conversations.

  • Try to limit the amount of news media coverage you allow your child or teen to see and/or hear.  Young children especially may not yet have the capacity to discern or understand what is happening without having mom, dad, or a loved one provide a filter.
  • Consider your child’s age and developmental maturity when deciding what to share.  Try to find language that you believe your child/teen will understand to help them have context for sharing their worries, fears and concerns.
  • ​Reassure your child/teen of the safety in your own home and with you as a parent.  It may be helpful for you to remind your child/teen of the types of strategies your family has in place in case of emergencies.  For example, you might remind your child of why you lock your doors at home and in your vehicle when you are in the car to demonstrate to them that you are aware of their need for safety and to reassure them that you as the parent are concerned about their well being.
  • Ask your child/teen to talk with you about what they know of the triggering event and allow them space to express their feelings in an appropriate manner.  In allowing them space to discuss what they know, not only will you gain an idea of which knowledge gaps you may need to fill, but you will reinforce the importance of expressing feelings.  This is important for helping children and teenagers develop awareness of their emotions and responses to scary events.
  • ​Be aware of significant changes in your child/teen’s behavior and act if you believe that the behaviors are seriously out of character.  Seek professional help if you must, as it is important to address these types of issues when they are in their early stages so that your child/teen does not suffer needlessly.
  • Be patient with yourself and your child/teen.  It may take a few days, or weeks or even months for him/her/them to return to “equilibrium” emotionally and behaviorally.  
  • Whatever your faith, you may find it helpful to rely on its teachings to help you.  Especially in the case of discussing the death and dying that they have certainly seen regularly in the recent months.   If faith is a part of your household, you may also find it helpful for “de-stressing” with your child/teen in a manner congruent with your family values.
  • Please remember that sensitive issues should be handled with care, but not avoided.  By taking time to understand racism, xenophobia, institutionalized discrimination, racial bias, police brutality and related issues, we help our children not only see race and culture, but embrace them in a healthy way. As parents, we must seek to understand our own fears, biases, and worries related to race and culture, then carefully use that knowledge to positively promote discussions on these issues in our homes and communities.

Recognize that racial stressors, tragedies and trauma impact us all in some way. For good mental health, it is important for us to acknowledge this, prioritize actively caring for our mental health and use every tool we can to support our children and loved ones.

I hope that you find this information helpful and know that as a Black mom and woman of color, I see you and I understand.

Love and Light,

Dr. Alfiee