Processing feelings of fear, anger and sadness about racism, injustice and the recent violence erupting in cities around the country is hard for adults. Many parents are understandably struggling with what to say and do to help their children. Unfortunately, our country’s history makes this a much more complicated task than it should be, requiring much unlearning, studying and new learning on many of our parts.
Many parents are looking for ways to teach their children the importance of seeking out diverse people, ideas, and experiences while learning, themselves, that the goal is equitable treatment for our black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Equity is about recognizing that access to opportunity and advancement in most, if not all, aspects of our society has not been fair. It means striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented full participation in our society of disenfranchised and marginalized groups. Becoming anti-racist means that you are actively working to dismantle racism.
The messages for parents of BIPOC children and parents of white children are similar, but unique. Here are some tips to help white families navigate these trying times and begin championing a better world. An upcoming piece geared for parents of BIPOC children will be following shortly, and the conversations won’t stop there.
Help Children Feel Safe
The average child in this country will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. If your child has seen coverage of the recent police killing of George Floyd or watched videos of protests that turned violent, chances are the news is having an effect on them. A child’s distress might manifest in behavior problems, trouble sleeping or new fears.
Here are some ways you can help your children feel safe and learn more.
Watch what your children and teens watch – especially the news. Ask, “What do you understand? How do you feel about it?” Correct misperceptions and misconceptions about what they have heard and seen. Validate their emotions. Remember, emotions are never wrong – they are our experiences. Let them know you have similar emotions or ones that are even a little bit different than theirs, and that’s OK. It’s helpful to find something you feel hopeful about so that you can instill that in your children. When there is hope, there is reason to go on rather than giving up.
Children old enough to understand what is happening may be afraid that what they are seeing may happen again, and could result in someone they know or love being a victim of an act of violence or injury. Reduce fear and anxiety by discussing what you and the community where you live are doing to keep everyone safe. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, work together with your child or teen to find them. Through the COVID pandemic and schooling from home, perhaps your children have developed new ways of reaching out to their teachers, school guidance counselors or health care professionals; keep the conversation going.
Avoid fictional shows that promote prejudice and racial bias or highlight violence and unrest by BIPOC. If you are uncomfortable with what you are watching, even on the news, turn it off because it is likely to be just as unsettling for your child.
Countering bias has to start early. Teach your toddlers how to be welcoming of all people and cultures since biases and preferences can form even at that early age, if not before. It is important for parents and other caregivers to be good role models, so seek out viewpoints and experiences that differ from those of your family, too. As COVID restrictions begin to lift, build in together time with families of different cultures in your community to remove those prejudices that exist in our own families.
Finding ways for your child and you to safely volunteer, donate or help those affected by a tragic event can instill the importance of treating others humanely.
Read together and expand your child’s library to include books with racially and culturally diverse protagonists and heroes.
Here is a list of resources specifically for white allies and those seeking to engage in anti-racism work, recommended by Marissa Coleman, PsyD, staff psychologist at UVM Medical Center.
“Something Happened in Our Town,” by Marianne Celano, Ann Hazzard, and Marietta Collins
“We’re Different We’re the Same,” by Bobbi Kates
“Anti-Racism Starts with Me! A Coloring Book for Kids,” by Kadeesha Bryant
Vashti Harrison’s book series: “Little Leaders, Little Legends, and Little Dreamers”
(Pre-Teen) “Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness (Ordinary Terrible Things),” by Anastasia Higginbotham
“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi
“White Fragility,” by Robin D’Angelo
“Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor,” by Layla F. Saad
“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,”by Dr. Beverly Tatum
“White Fragility,” by Robin D’Angelo
“How to Be an Antiracist,”by Ibram X. Kendi
“Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor,”by Layla F. Saad
If despite these suggestions, you find your child remains sad, withdrawn and is not acting normally in the weeks ahead, then speak to your child’s health care professional because counseling may be needed to deal with the stress and anxiety they are experiencing.
Courtney Landau Fleisher, Ph.D. is a pediatric psychologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and a clinical assistant professor for the Department of Psychiatry and Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. She has been active in education and volunteer work on issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.