Discussing Violence, Protests, and Police Brutality with Young Children

Children across the United States become aware of the violent acts of racism that our country continues to confront through watching the news or witnessing racism in their own communities. Understand that children are aware of racial differences very early in their lives. By age 2-4, children can internalize racial bias (Healthy Children). It is important to discuss race and racism openly and honestly with children.

Many children of color have experienced such racism themselves, or seen it affect their loved ones. From police brutality against Black people to attacks on Asian American people during the coronavirus crisis, there’s a lot going on that can be scary and confusing for kids to deal with (Child Mind Institute).

Strategies for Discussion

  • Validate the child’s feelings, fears, or worries, even when what they are saying may make you uncomfortable. Acting out their worries with toys or expressing themselves through art are developmentally appropriate ways children may share their emotions with you. Acknowledge their feelings, and ask them broad questions that help them think through their emotions, such as “How did you feel about what we saw on the news? What did it make you think about?” (Child Mind Institute).
  • Be direct when speaking about race to help children understand how racial disparities are impacting people of color in our society. Child Mind Institute offers the following example: “It may seem obvious, but be sure to emphasize that racial violence is wrong. It’s easy for kids (especially little ones) to think that bad things happen to people of color because the people are themselves bad. […] Emphasize to your child that Black people and other people of color are good and that being a person of color doesn’t make you bad. Treating people unfairly is the thing that’s bad, and people of color have been treated unfairly for a long time.”
  • Speak calmly, but don’t hide your emotions. Talking about violence and police brutality may be difficult and raise negative emotions for you, as well. You can let your child know that it’s difficult to talk about and step away from the conversation, letting them know that you can talk about it again in a little while. It is important  for parents and caregivers to take care of their own mental wellbeing amidst violence and racism to ensure that their child feels safe and cared for in these conversations. (USA Today)
  • If your child is fearful of police officers, speak to them about how most police officers work in that job because they want to help people. They help our communities by making sure cars don’t go too fast or helping when something has been stolen. However, some police officers do break the law. Parents and caregivers should let their children know that they are safe. The conversation about police brutality may vary depending on the age of the child and their race, especially if they have been witness to police brutality in their own lives. Black children may experience more fear from stories of police brutality because they identify themselves and their loved ones as potential targets, and it may be harder for their parents and caregivers to reassure them that they are safe and their family is safe (WBUR). One Talk at a Time is a resource providing support for Latinx American, Asian America, African American, and Block youth and their families to have conversations about race and ethnicity.
  • Let your child know that the conversation about race and racism is open at any time, and that they can approach you with questions or when they are feeling scared, sad, or worried. You can share stories of hope and resilience with your children often to let them know that there are good people helping to improve our society (Common Sense Media). Reading children’s books that discuss race and violence is also a great avenue for having conversations about these difficult topics with young children. Additionally, children may be thinking about race at times when you are not aware that it is on their mind. You should continue to ask them questions about how they are feeling or what they are thinking about (WBUR).

Supporting Children’s Mental Health Amid Anti-Black Racial Violence

Racism in our society may lead to or exacerbate mental health issues facing the Black community, leading to other health risks like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or drug abuse. Additionally, Black individuals are less likely to seek mental health treatment – only one third of Black Americans who need mental health care receive it (Sunshine Behavioral Health). The impact of racism has been linked to birth disparities and mental health problems in children and adolescents (American Academy of Pediatrics).

Parents and caregivers may experience situations where they are attempting to support their child’s mental health, but also must take care of themselves in order to be a resource for their children.

Seek professional support, if needed. Sometimes children’s or caregivers’ experience of racial trauma can lead to serious traumatic stress that requires professional support. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) recommends seeking help from a mental health clinician if serious problems persist longer than six weeks (Child Trends).

Ongoing individual and collective psychological or physical injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based adversity, discrimination, and stress, referred to as racial trauma, is harmful to children’s development and well-being. Events that may cause racial trauma include threats of harm and injury, hate speech, humiliating and shaming events, or any other form of individual, historical, or institutional racism. Children also experience racial trauma after hearing about or witnessing another person’s direct experiences, often referred to as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. To help protect children from the harmful effects of racial trauma, caregivers must start talking to them about race and racism early—when children are very young and first developing a sense of racial identity (Child Trends).

child wearing a mask holds out their hand