June 26, 2020

Talking to Kids About Racism

Article by Marsha Chenoweth MD, Toya Roberson-Moore MD and Anne Marie O’Melia, MD

The tumult of the last few months began with a global pandemic, progressed to economic turmoil and is culminating now in national outrage related to, among other longstanding injustices, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. Black Americans have higher health risks associated with toxic environmental exposures (e.g. air quality) and lower access to health care.

This means that COVID-19 mortality has disproportionally affected our Black families. The financial consequences of the pandemic have also disproportionally impacted Black Americans. It is essential that the ongoing protests in cities and towns across the world be perceived and interpreted in the context of deep-rooted, disproportionate suffering for Black individuals and people of color more broadly.

We have seen police interact supportively and collaboratively with peaceful protesters. We have seen police respond to the denunciation of police violence with further violence. We have seen earnest protests fulminate into destructive expressions of a frustration that has seethed for generations. And we have seen peaceful demonstrations hijacked and undermined by an unnerving array of violent opportunists and anarchists.

We are, in the U.S., ONE nation, all equally made but quite unequally placed and supported. We can only make sense of the historic events of 2020 by considering our country’s unresolved and unrelenting legacy of individual, systemic, and institutional racism, a legacy that harms and kills Americans of color. So how do we communicate this purposefully to the recipients of our nation’s dubious inheritance? How do we talk about this with our children?

As child health experts, pediatricians and child psychiatrists at ERC/Insight, we are called to provide guidance on discussing race and racism with children and adolescents. We recognize how difficult it can be to start such conversations. We hope that the following guidance, informed by experts in the fields of pediatrics, child and adolescent psychiatry, education, and social justice will provide a helpful blueprint.

Most experts recommend that parents make a conscious effort to talk to their children about racial differences from a young age. According to Dr. Toya Roberson-Moore, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at ERC/Insight in Chicago, “research shows that infants are attuned to racial differences and develop preferences for people whose race and gender match those closest to them.”

This video shows what can happen when families don't talk about race. When these issues are withheld from their dialogue, children innately construct a distorted worldview using the myths and stereotypes that are so deeply engrained in our shared culture.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you start the conversation by first checking in with your children. Meet them where they are. Ask them what they know, what they have seen, and how they feel about it. Validate their feelings and reassure them it’s normal to experience emotions about the world in which we find ourselves. For younger children, it can be helpful to tell them what you are doing to keep them and the rest of the family safe. For pre-teens and older children, it might be helpful to ask if they’ve witnessed or experienced mistreatment or racism.

It is recommended that parents and caregivers place limits on what children see in media. With older children and teens, watching TV and browsing social media with them and discussing what you’re both seeing can be most helpful. Listen to their observations and share your own. You can pause the media or use commercial breaks to have brief discussions. With younger children, limit exposure to media, including TV, smartphones or tablets, and make sure any media exposure occurs in a common area where parents can check in or intervene.

As an adult, it’s essential to remember to tune into your own emotions and check that you are okay. If you are not, reach out for help in processing the traumatic and emotional impact these images and events may have. Continue to cultivate a base of helpful coping strategies and practice these when needed.

Share your own experiences with your children, including the helpful advice and support that were provided to you in times of need. Make commitments to family values and to traditions that are important to them.

Above all, AAP and other child advocacy groups encourage adults to be honest with children; to help them understand that people in our country are treated differently based on what they look like and where they live, and that this is immoral and dangerous. If you struggle to find the “right” words, consider sharing books or other resources with your child.

For ideas about age-appropriate books to read with your child, please see this list here, as well as this one and this one.

You can share with your children that no one is perfect, talk about what you are doing to be anti-racist, what you have learned, and how you as a family can manifest meaningful change in your community and your lives. Adults can also model how to make a positive difference in this regard. For example, your family can write or call your local elected officials to advocate for communities of color or find ways to participate in community action.

This moment of national uproar brings with it a unique and invaluable opportunity for adults to confront their own biases and to shape their children’s future interactions with others who may be different from them. Let us not squander this moment in silence.

We would like to thank Tia Henry, MBA, Clinical Chief of Staff, for consultation and identification of additional resources:
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