Let's not kid ourselves, these are immensely tough times that we are dealing with. During a pandemic, at a time when we are weary from the toll it has taken on us all, we are facing an intense period of outrage against racial inequality. This has placed the topics of racism, police brutality and protest into the center of everyone’s homes. These are topics that some parents may feel afraid to broach. For some families, sadly, these are topics that are regularly discussed. Regardless of whether these are new or recurring points of discussion for your family, it is essential to address them. As parents, it is important that we provide an environment for our children where they can always feel welcomed to come to us and discuss tough topics. Not talking about these issues makes children think that what they are feeling is wrong. It's important that parents help their children navigate a seemingly overwhelming reality. In doing so, this will not only provide security to the child, but it will help to strengthen the bond between parent and child.
Practice Self Care First
Acknowledge the impact that these events have had on you. Experiencing disturbing events directly or viewing them on screens can have a traumatic and lasting impact on you as well as your child. For some, it triggers unpleasant memories and past personal experiences that were similar to what is happening currently. Take a moment to take inventory of how you feel. Find ways to decrease your anxiety, fears and anger before talking with your children. Meditation, prayer & positive affirmation, and exercise are activities that may be helpful in allowing you to ground yourself and restore inner peace. It is important to be a calm, rational, and fully available parent in order to help your children feel safe, calm and secure. Very young children may not fully understand the events that are occurring but they can sense urgency, fear and anger in their parent's voices and behaviors, and that can be very unsettling. Take care of yourself first so that you can appropriately address the concerns of your child.
Create Predictability and Routine
We already know that children thrive off of routine and predictability. This is even more true during times that appear out of control. Start with keeping a consistent home schedule. Take a break from watching the protests and do a family activity in the evening such as playing a board game, or having a family movie night. Follow it up with a quiet activity such as reading to help relax and calm the body prior to the onset of sleep. Maintain your pre-bedtime routine and keep the bedtime and wake-up time consistent. Kids do best when they are well rested and this helps to stave off anxiety and racing thoughts. We know the benefits that physical touch can have on the body and in decreasing stress. This is the perfect time for extra hugs and snuggles...even with your teenager!
Answer the Tough Questions
Yes, it may be hard to directly answer “why did the policeman do that” or, “why are they protesting outside our window” but it is important to answer it honestly. However, most times parents answer the question with far more detail or explanation than the child was seeking. Before answering, first get more information from your child. Begin by asking follow-up questions to gauge the true concern of the child. Have them talk about their feelings and thoughts on the matter. This tactic also allows you to gather yourself before diving into these complex issues. It is important to address their specific concerns at their own developmental level, in an honest way. Show kids positive images of people protesting from history and teach them the outcome of those protests in changing policies (voting rights, school integration, etc.).
For our older children who may not come to you with questions it is important to engage them with dialogue. It is likely that they have seen every video of George Floyd that exists. They are aware of who Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are. Ask them what they have seen and how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and provide comfort while modeling empathy-building towards others. Take this opportunity to teach your children about the unique history of America and the impact it has had on marginalized communities over time. Ask them to consider how people of different races, particularly African-American friends and classmates may be handling these trying times. These perspective-taking exercises are helpful in raising children with compassion for others.
Keep the Conversation Going...in Word and Action
It is important as a community member and a parent that we all continue to discuss race and racism with our kids, and celebrate our differences. Acting as though these issues don’t exist does more harm than good in the development of your child. We know that kids who grow up in homes that consistently have conversations about race and traumatic events have better skills in anger management and conflict resolution than those who grow up in homes where these topics are not discussed. Keeping books with diverse characters in your family’s library, and learning about other cultures is helpful, but it goes far beyond that. Find ways to show your kids your support of issues that tackle injustice and inequality. Discussing these issues is great, but we must all strive to fight against practices and policies that promote racism. Remember, our children are watching everything that we do.
Allison Foster, MD