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Ann Gadzikowski

The recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd (as well as Breonna Taylor and many other people of color) have affected families with young children in many different ways.

Some children are seeing protests in their own neighborhoods. Others are hearing their families talk about the protests or they are seeing news coverage. Many children are aware that adults in their lives are upset and anxious, but they may not know why.

The focus of this article is on how to talk with young children about these current events and, especially, how to reassure children who might feel confused, frightened, or worried. How parents talk with their children about the protests will certainly be influenced by each family’s lived experience with racism and their beliefs about how change happens.

Research shows that parents of color are significantly more likely to talk with their children about race than their white peers. In some families, especially for people of color, a discussion about the protests may take place in the context of frequent ongoing conversations about racism.

For families who have experienced the trauma of racism directly, what’s happening now may make those conversations more urgent and difficult. In other families, especially white families, this may be the first time parents have discussed racism with their children. All children are impacted by racism in one way or another and most children will benefit from an opportunity to talk with their families about what’s happening. For more in-depth guidance about how to talk with children about racism, see the suggested resources listed at the end of the article.

Ask Children What They Already Know

If your child talks about the protests or is present when you are watching and discussing news coverage, begin a conversation by asking your child questions. Find out what your child already knows or wonders about the protests. For example, “You’ve probably been hearing people talk about protests. Do you know what a protest is?” or “What do you think about all these protests?” Then stop and listen.

Take your time and stay open to what your child might say. Pause and say, “Tell me more about that.” Taking this time to listen to your child may reveal misunderstandings or fears that you will want to address. For example, a young child could confuse recent events and think that the protests are caused by the coronavirus. On the other hand, sometimes children also impress us with their depth of understanding. The act of listening helps you learn what your child needs and also shows your child that you care and value their ideas.

Offer Brief, Child-Appropriate Explanations

Young children do not need to know the specific details of George Floyd’s death to understand why people are angry. Offer a simple explanation like, “A police officer hurt a Black man named George Floyd, and he died. The protesters believe what happened was wrong.”

Let your child know how you feel and what you believe using simple and direct language. For example, “I think it was wrong too. In our family, we believe that everyone should be treated fairly.” or “I’m upset that Black people are so often treated unfairly.”

Children who have seen news coverage may have questions or worries about rioting. Even very young children can understand the difference between a “protest” and a “riot.” For example, you might say:

A protest is peaceful. People use their words to talk, sing, or make signs to show what they believe. People walk, stand, kneel, or sit in places where others can see them and learn about what they believe. A riot is different. A riot is when people hurt people or things, like throwing rocks or breaking windows.

When you talk with your children about the protests and riots, it may be helpful to explain these differences in the context of what your family believes about right and wrong. For example, “It’s OK to say you’re mad. It’s not OK to hit or kick.”

Reassure and Care for Children

After offering explanations that your child can understand, the next thing a young child will likely want to know is “Who will take care of me?” Children need reassurance that their families will take care of them and keep them safe.

It might be helpful to draw a picture or make a list to show your child all the people who love them and want to help them stay safe: members of their family, teachers and neighbors, or workers and clergy in their community.

Parents of children of color may find it helpful to talk about elder, ancestors, and role models who demonstrated courage, resistance, and healing and to connect your child to that rich history through stories and music.

Finally, take care of yourself. You need your own strength and courage in order to be a source of security for your child. If you can, limit your own exposure to the news and social media and try to get enough rest and sleep.

Each day, take at least a few minutes to do something fun together with your child that you both truly enjoy such as reading a storybook, drawing with crayons, or just sitting by the window and watching birds fly across the sky.

Be prepared to revisit these conversations about protests and racism with your children. White parents can educate themselves about issues of privilege and systems of oppression through resources such as Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Additional resources are listed at the end of this article.

For Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

If your child has directly experienced racism or violence based on their identity, your family will likely need more support than the tips included in this article. The repetitive trauma of racism causes lasting mental and physical health issues. Child health expert Dr. Nadine Burke Harris writes about the long-term effects of childhood trauma in her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Organizations like the Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families provide mental health services to children and caregivers.

As Dr. Burke Harris states in The Deepest Well, “The single most important thing is recognizing what the problem is in the first place.”

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