As cities and social media explode with anger over the killing of yet another black man at the hands of police, worried parents struggle with how to protect their children from seeing the worst of the violence while simultaneously explaining the ravages of racism.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Sheltering at home for months to avoid the deadly coronavirus, many parents stressed by juggling work and child care from home had eased their restrictions on screen time for their children.
Now it’s even more likely that kids might find the video of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed black man in Minneapolis, gasping for breath as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
Even if they haven’t, experts say parents should assume their children are already aware of tragedies like these and their aftermath.
“Children and adolescents are experiencing the collateral consequences of the publicized murderers of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, whether they have a smartphone in their direct possession or not,” said California pediatrician Dr. Rhea Boyd, who teaches nationally on the relationship between structural racism, inequity and health.
“Whether from social media accounts, conversations with peers or caregivers, overheard conversations, or the distress they witness in the faces of those they love, children know what is going on,” Boyd said. “And without the guidance and validation of their caregivers, they may be navigating their feelings alone.”
Take care of you first
How can a parent help their child traverse these disturbing times?
Let the child’s age and level of development guide you, experts say, but first, be sure that you are in the right frame of mind.
“A parent’s first step is to take care of themselves, their mental health, their emotional health. Put their oxygen mask on first before they put the oxygen mask on their child,” said Chicago pediatrician Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, who chairs the minority health, equity and inclusion committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
“Vicarious trauma through screens is real, especially for marginalized communities who may have experienced similar actions first-hand,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who teaches at the University of Michigan.
The stress of watching traumatic events on television and smartphones “lingers within our bodies and minds,” Radesky added. She suggests parents find ways to channel that energy with positive actions, such as deep breathing and re-grounding exercises, before playing with or talking to your kids.
“This doesn’t mean letting go of the anger or anxiety, it just means organizing it better so you can think and act more clearly,” she said.
Once a parent is fully available to be a calm, rational voice, “then you can parse out what’s important to pass onto your child so that you’re not oversharing information that may further traumatize them or make them feel insecure or unsafe,” Heard-Garris said.
Infants and toddlers
While children younger than three aren’t going to understand what is happening on television, they will be able to pick up on the “fear, urgency, or anger in people’s voices and behaviors,” Radesky said.
At this age, stress shows up in fussy or unregulated behavior. To keep that from occurring, parents should read, listen to or watch the news when the baby isn’t physically there.
“Watch what you need to stay informed about your community, but then turn it off and do something that makes your family feel connected and whole,” Radesky said. “You may need to re-ground yourself or regulate your thoughts and feelings before re-engaging with your kids.”
This is the time to begin teaching your child about systemic racism and how to identify and refute it, experts say.
Racist stereotypes and bias begin at a shockingly young age.
As early as six months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences, and can internalize racial bias by ages two to four, said Maryland pediatrician Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, who co-authored the AAP’s statement on the impact of racism on child and adolescent health.
“Learning” racism is a lot like learning a new language for babies and toddlers, wrote Dougé and California pediatrician Dr. Ashaunta Anderson in a separate commentary. It can happen without parental input, just by the racial stereotypes so prevalent in society.
By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs. That gives parents “a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding,” they wrote.
While helpful for all races, it’s especially important for white children to see brown and black kids in a positive light to fight systemic racism, experts say. Books that profile multi-racial characters are an excellent way for parents to do that. And since it’s never too early to read to a baby, start right away.
Common Sense Media, a non-profit that rates movies, TV shows, books, apps and other media for parents and schools, has curated a list of 80 books with diverse, multi-cultural characters for preschoolers and older, some of which could easily be suitable for babies and toddlers.
“There’s also a website called the Brown Bookshelf,” said Heard-Garris. “These are books that have, brown and black protagonists who deal at times with tough issues. I think books are really, really fundamental, especially for younger kids.”
Preschool and elementary ages
This is the age when kids begin to ask questions on why other people look different than they do.
“If your child asks about someone’s skin tone, you might say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we are all so different!’ You can even hold your arm against theirs to show the differences in skin tones in your family,” according to Dougé and Anderson.
At this age, children will see and absorb disturbing images from protests and riots literally, “likely focusing on worrying about a burning van or a scary-looking person in a mask,” Radesky said.
Parents should do their best to limit the exposure children this age have to media, whether television, smart phones or tablets, experts say.
“This can be done by setting certain times that children can use their devices, co-view the content with their children, find other activities like playing outside, games, cooking together, set rules that kids should use the devices in a common area where parents can check in,” Dougé said.
“These times also provide opportunities for parents to model the behavior they want their kids to follow by also limiting their exposure to media,” Dougé added.
But as Boyd said, children will likely have already overheard adult conversations, or been exposed to what is happening via social media accounts and conversations with friends.
“Parents who have not already, should proactively engage their kids around these distressing events,” Boyd said. “Ask them what they know and what they’ve seen. Ask them how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and let them know what you are doing to keep them safe – be it in your home or your community.”
Parents will also need to give their children the broader societal context of racism in order to try to explain the rage of protestors filling the streets of cities across the nation, Radesky said.
By doing so, parents can help build empathy and teach perspective-taking, rather than focusing on the child’s specific fears.
“Instead of focusing on questions the child may have about concrete things, ask them questions like ‘How do you think those people were feeling? Do you know why they were angry? What do you do when you feel like something is unfair?’ ” Radesky said.
“Providing a controlled space to understand what is going on and ways to process it will help children navigate the distressing emotions, helplessness and fear they may be experiencing,” Boyd said.
Age-appropriate books that deal with discrimination and explain feelings from different perspectives are extremely helpful during this time, experts say.
“You can also show them videos of peaceful protests from the past, where people were inspired to demand fair treatment,” said Radesky, while warning that some YouTube videos can contain intense political and disinformation ads occurring before and during videos.
“Just skip those and start showing your young kids the Martin Luther King Jr. or other video once the ad has passed,” Radesky suggested. “For older children, you can ask them what they think of different ads and whether they’re trustworthy.”
For black families, there is another, more painful necessity at this age, known as “the talk.” It’s a series of “don’ts” black families have passed on for generations: Don’t resist police. Stay away from bad places. Be respectful to white people and stay away from confrontation with white men, especially police.
“We’re black folks so we don’t have a choice but to talk about race and talk about racism,” said Heard-Garris, who has a seven-year-old son. “So he can tell you probably more eloquently than I can about racism and he’s seven.”
She recalls with pain when he asked her if he would be the target of police violence at the tender age of four after he heard adults talk about a recent police shooting of an unarmed black man.
“He said to me ‘Are police here to help me or do they shoot me? I thought they’re supposed to keep me safe. I thought they were supposed to keep us safe.’ And he was four,” she related.
“And so we had a long conversation about how police are supposed to keep us safe, and I assured him that as his mom, that’s my job. ‘My first job is to always keep you safe,’ I told him.”
“As he grows, I’m going to have to have a more frank conversation that, ‘Unfortunately you’re going to do all the right things, but you might not be safe.” And that’s going to be a hard day for us.”
The recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was killed in March after officers forced their way inside her home; Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old unarmed black man shot while taking a jog in rural Georgia in February; and now George Floyd’s death, has many black parents afraid that “the talk” may not be enough.
“The problem here is systemic racism and disregard for black lives,” Heard-Garris said. “And so as a doctor, I don’t just treat a patient that has a fever when they have a bacterial infection, right?
“I give them antibiotics. I don’t just keep giving them Tylenol because that’s not going to treat the infection. And I think as a country we need to treat the illness, which is systemic racism.”
As Heard-Garris’s story illustrates, when to begin “the talk” will be unique for each child and family, Boyd said.
“For some, it may be earlier than expected, because evidence indicates black children in particular are often perceived as older and less innocent than they are. For black girls this process of adultification can begin as young as age 5 and for black boys it can begin by age 10,” Boyd said.
“Beginning ‘the talk’ with school aged children can prepare them for these encounters before they occur and equip them with tools that can be life saving,” Boyd added.
As an Africian American pediatrician, Boyd discusses the topic often with parents of children in her care. She advises black parents to think of “the talk” as more of a process than a singular conversation.
“That process may begin with introducing stories through age-appropriate books or films that can generate questions you answer together. Or it can be an ongoing dialogue that is sparked by current events. Just remember to include specific guidance that enables your child to know their rights and the steps they can take to try and stay safe. And always be sure to let your child know it isn’t fair they have to learn these lessons so young. But you are teaching then to try to keep them safe,” Boyd said.
White parents can have “the talk” too, Boyd said.
“It’s an important moment to build empathy with your child,” she said. “It is also important to highlight the other children who may have fears or concerns related to their safety, and to model and practice ‘upstanding’ or acting in defense of those around them.”
Tweens and teens
Of course, tweens and teens will likely be seeing all the coverage of police brutality and protests on their personal smartphones. Most teens get comfort by communicating with their friends on social media, Heard-Garris said. Some teens have even begun participating in online activism.
“Online activism is a coping response for some adolescents, especially right now while we’re physically distant,” Heard-Garris said. “Reposting, retweeting, expressing how they’re feeling, chatting with friends has been helpful, sort of an active kind of coping response.
“Other teens, especially those that are not of a minority background, so those that are white, are educating themselves about why this is happening, what’s the history of our country, what’s happening right now. Intellectualizing the issues has been helpful for them to understand this is not just a today problem, this has been going on for years,’” Heard-Garris said.
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At this age, kids will be able to think more abstractly about racism, injustice and violent versus peaceful protest and discuss their views with parents, experts say.
“Parents can ask their tweens or teens whether they’ve seen anything online about the riots and protests, what they think, and what about it was upsetting or inspiring,” Radesky said.
As the parent of any teenager will attest, direct questioning of teens often doesn’t produce constructive responses.
“I dunno,” is a typical reaction, so Radesky suggests parents also try asking about the types of unfairness kids see or feel in their everyday lives.
Parents can also make good use of movies and documentaries that can educate older teens on the history of discrimination. Common Sense Media has lists of movies that discuss racism or inspire kids to “change the world” which can be used to jump start conversations about racism and how they can help fight it, Radesky said.
“You don’t need to preach to children about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’” she said. “It’s better to have a conversation where they come to their own understanding and can see things in a larger social context.”
Kira Banks, a clinical psychologist whose website “Raising Equity” provides free videos and resources on how parents can fight racism and cultivate an open mind in themselves and their kids, suggests parents watch movies like “13th,” a powerful look at institutional racism in the justice system that premiered in 2016 to a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival.
“Is this a teachable moment? Absolutely. It must be, it has to be,” Banks said. “And if a person hasn’t done the work to understand the history of racism and discrimination in America they should do so, and then join us in raising our children to see and disrupt racism, and be the change we want to see.”
The work must be done by all social classes and races, experts say, including the most privileged.
“White and non-black families should not shield their older children from these images,” Radesky said. “We need to engage our children in a conversation about racism, and use these events as a catalyst.
“While it is upsetting to watch, we need to sit with that discomfort and teach our families how to channel that energy to work to dismantle the racist structures that exist in our communities.”