“The Talk” – Why is it important to talk with children about what happened to George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality or racism in the news?

“The Talk” – Why is it important to talk with children about what happened to George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality or racism in the news?

Written and compiled by Erica Prime, M.A., LLP, CSP, parent and lead psychologist at Bradford Academy, Dove Academy, Four Corner Montessori Academy and Macomb Montessori Academy with the Detroit Institute for Children

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and along with other recent incidents of racial injustice, and ongoing protests are part of a more complex story.  It is a story that parents of color have been telling for generations, and one that white parents may have not had to face yet and therefore may be wondering if they should talk with their kids at all. Experts in child psychology and race-based stress say these conversations, though admittedly difficult, are essential for all parents to have.  Even very young children may see or hear about these highly publicized incidents, or they may perceive the parent’s distress. Older children will likely see television and online images on their own and be disturbed, but unable to express their feelings. If parents are silent, children may draw their own often faulty conclusions about what is happening and why, but initiating calm, measured, age-appropriate conversations can give children a helpful frame for understanding difficult these realities. 

How do I start a conversation with my child?

The first place to start a conversation around racism, police brutality, and the subsequent protests is with honesty. Parents may not have all the answers, and that is OKFor children just being able to share their feelings with a supportive adult can reduce a child’s fear, anxiety and uncertainty.  Just being there is what matters.  The type of conversations that you have with your children should depend on their age, and will likely depend on their race as well. 

Families of color may need to begin, or continue the process of having, “the talk”, which is a series of guidelines black families have passed on for generations to try to keep children safe.  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.  Children of color are likely experiencing fear, anxiety, and anger and may not be able to express those feelings.  They are likely afraid for their lives, terrified of the police, and fearful of society at large.  It is important to encourage them to express those feelings, to help them understand that their lives matter, and communicate that, though there are some bad officers who do horrible things, the majority of them became police so that they could help people.  For older children of color, it is important to go on to express how vital it is for them to know what to do if a police officer ever stops them, giving them some sense of control.  Most importantly, your child needs to know that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.

White parents can also have a version of “the talk”. White children are often racially isolated as a consequence of segregated schools and neighborhoods, and consequently limited in their understanding of people different from themselves. White parents may want to learn to talk to their children about racism and model their own anti-racist activity.  According to research, white parents often don’t talk with their children about race or may emphasize “not seeing color.” The concept of colorblindness or “not seeing color” may be more harmful than helpful, as it does not honor an individual’s identity.  This is an important opportunity to help your child build empathy, and to model and practice ‘upstanding’ or acting in defense of those around them. 

What type of conversation is appropriate for my child’s age?

Elementary age children

At this age, children will see and absorb disturbing images from protests and violence literally.  For example, they are likely to focus on a vision of a burning van or a scary-looking person in a mask and may believe that they are in immediate danger.  For younger children conversations about racism should be limited to basic facts about how people of color are unjustly treated differently due to the color of their skin, but also acknowledge that not everyone treats people differently based on race.

  • Parents should do their best to limit the exposure children of this age have to media, whether television, smartphones or tablets.  This can be done by setting certain times that children can use their devices and co-viewing the content with children. 
  • Parents should ask their kids what they know, what they’ve seen, and how they are feeling, and try to validate their feelings and let them know what you are doing to keep them safe.
  • Parents should, in time, give their children age appropriate broader societal context of racism in order to try to explain the rage of protestors filling the streets of cities across the nation.  By doing so, parents can help build empathy and teach perspective-taking.
  • Parents can seek out age-appropriate books that deal with discrimination and explain feelings from different perspectives. 

Middle and High School-Age Children

Tweens and teens will likely be seeing all the coverage of police brutality and protests on their own.  Online activism is a coping response for some adolescents, especially right now while we’re physically distant. Reposting, retweeting, expressing how they’re feeling, and chatting with friends can be helpful as an active kind of coping.  However, social media use should be monitored. 

  • Parents can consider exposure to news or social media posts as discussion points about this issue, but it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism, or unfairness, with messages about the possibility of change, and the community of allies who are working together to make things better.    
  • 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. 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.  As the parent of any teenager will attest, direct questioning of teens often doesn’t produce constructive responses.  Parents may 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. You don’t need to preach to children about what is right or wrong.  Instead, having a conversation where they come to their own understanding and can see things in a larger social context.

If a child says they are afraid or angry, what do you say?

If a child tells you that they are angry, that is appropriate. Don’t force them to hide their emotional expression. However, be sure to help them identify ways to express their anger in a healthy manner which may include journaling or exercising to release the energy from their body.  Acknowledge the child’s feelings and let them know that adults have similar feelings using a phrase such as, “I know it’s upsetting to hear about and see these things happening. It upsets me too when bad things like this happen. Racism is very unfair. But it makes me feel better to know there are lots of people who want to change things.” Being able to offer specific examples of community change agents and being able to talk about what family members are doing to speak up against unfairness would be especially useful. Actions always speak louder than words. 

If a child is afraid for one of their friends, how can parents talk about law enforcement in a way that is honest but also doesn’t discourage children from seeking help from law enforcement when appropriate?

Talk with them about those emotions. Allow the child to express why they may be afraid and help them identify how they can check on their friend’s safety to ease their anxiety or fear. Part of what increases anxiety is the fear of the unknown. If you have a plan of action it will reduce some of those fears.  “I can see that you are worried about your friend. What do you think we could do that might help him or her?” Depending on the situation, this could be an opportunity to talk about what it means to be an ally, and how to stand in solidarity with another person.  “Most police officers become police officers because they want to help people. And there are times when we would really want a police officer to help us – give some examples – if there’s been a car accident, or if someone took something that belonged to us, etc. But sometimes a police officer does something bad. When that happens, we might start to think that all police officers are like that. But it’s important to remember that that is not true.

Many of these deaths garner attention because footage of it goes viral. What should we say if our child asks to see it?

You should not show your children these videos as it may increase the likelihood of them experiencing symptoms of trauma or having nightmares. What we know from research on witnessing disasters is that individuals may be at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder even through indirect exposure to these events. 

How can parents explain the uprisings in a way that doesn’t condone violence but also doesn’t minimize the sense of injustice fueling them?

It is important for parents to be honest. Share your hurt, anger, or disappointment with your child. Children understand the concept of unfairness as well as the experience of frustration. Years and years of unfairness – racism – results in intense anger and frustration. The conversation can then be about what we must do to fix the continuing unfairness.  Talk about different ways to protest social injustice such as calling your local politician’s office or even visit their office to talk with them about policy change to reduce injustice. 

Resources for Parents and Guardians

Mental Health Resources

Mental Health Hotline

888-PEER-753 (888-733-7753)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Confidential Mental Health Support by Texting

RESTORE to 741741

Psychiatric Urgent Care and Suicide Prevention