by Michelle Witkin, PhD

Images of the murder of Black Americans, discussions about systemic racism, sirens blaring, crowds protesting, curfews, fires. It’s tough for adults to make sense of the hurt in the world right now, but how do we help our children and teens with it?

Whether we are talking about it or not, many children are aware that something is going on. It can be frightening and confusing. How we respond can help children cope with what is happening in our country (and around the world), and while there is no one size fits all approach, there are a few things we can do to help.

You, first: You are a model for your child about how to function at this time. If you are emotional and distracted, your child will notice. Are you struggling? Are you watching too much news (limiting exposure is important for everyone)? Do you need to talk with someone or take a break before you talk with your child? You’ll want to interact calmly and be in a place where you’re ready to focus on your child. That doesn’t mean you need to hide your feelings. It’s okay, even critical, to be transparent, but you also don’t want your child to worry about you. That may mean taking care of yourself first.

Check in with your child/teen: If your child is sharing feelings, encourage that. If not, a good place to start with younger children can be asking how they are feeling about things they have seen or heard. (“How did you feel when you saw the people today with the signs?” “What is your reaction to what our neighbor was saying about the curfew tonight?”). With older kids and teens, you might respond to a comment they make and ask them to tell you more. Listen to what they share. Although it can be difficult, resist downplaying their fears. Let them know that ALL feelings are okay. When kids feel anxious or scared, it can be incredibly validating just to have somebody listen.

Younger kids might express their feelings through drawing or play. Allow this. If you see a drawing or play activity that looks disturbing or violent, gently ask the child to share about it, taking care not to react negatively. Even if it feels uncomfortable, listen and let them know you hear; there is nothing so terrible they might express that it is not okay to share.

Follow your child’s lead: Your child may have questions about what is going on. When they ask one, answer it directly, and according to the child’s developmental level. Be honest, yet take care not to go overboard in details that the child is not asking about. Not all children want to know specific details; others do. Let their questions guide you as to how much to share. Most older kids want to know more, but that’s not always the case.

Address race and racism: Tough as it can feel, these are topics we need to discuss with our children. We can even share that the protests are about racism and violent acts toward Black Americans. While we might desire to teach that all people are the same, research shows that children as young as 2 notice differences between people (e.g., color of skin, hair type, gender), and they may even have their first experiences of racism and bias at a tender age (“Mommy, why did she say she won’t play with me because my skin is dark?”). These conversations are important opportunities to help our children recognize and accept differences. While discussions will differ depending on the age of the child it is important to speak honestly about our country’s history of discrimination and bigotry, model equity in word and action (e.g., demonstrate disapproval when someone is held to a different standard because of their skin color, gender, religion, etc.), and model taking action when you see injustice based on bias and stereotypes. While the protests may prompt discussions now, we can also seize on future opportunities. For example, if a child witnesses bullying, and race is a factor, we can identify that. We can also help them learn to not make generalizations about people who appear to be of a similar background.

Help your child to feel safe: Children can become afraid for their own safety when they see and hear about frightening events. We can help by sharing with them what we are doing to keep them safe or what the public is doing. Depending on what the child is fearful of we might explain that protestors are asking for changes in our system, or we can explain that our towns are working to decrease violence and increase calm.

For further reading on talking to kids about race:

Thank you to fellow ADAA member Dr. Mbemba Jabbi for giving his time and input as I developed this article.

About the Author

Michelle Witkin, PhD is a licensed psychologist with over 25 years’ experience. She is in private practice in Valencia, California, where she specializes in treating children, teens, and adults with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety disorders.  Dr. Witkin is dedicated to educating the public about these conditions. She is a Clinical Fellow of ADAA. She is a graduate of the Pediatric Behavior Therapy Training Institute and the Behavior Therapy Training Institute of the International OCD Foundation. Dr. Witkin has raised two terrific young adults.