An African American father speaks with his son on a bench.

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Helping Children Navigate Through Racially Tense Times

Recent events have brought children face-to-face with race issues

Watching symbols of racism waved inside the Capitol building along with hate-filled banners, t-shirts and propaganda displayed during the riotous events of January are a stark reminder that this country still has a way to go with regard to its race relations.

As we celebrate Black History Month in February, it’s important to talk to your children about the positive gains our society has made as well as the work that still needs to be done. In order to get beyond the turbulence of last year and sobering start to this one, keep in mind the following when you address the issue with your children.

Be Honest and Open, but Not Overwhelming

Instead of waiting for children to bring up questions about race, ask them directly what they’ve seen and how they feel about what is going on. Help put it into context and reassure them that you will be there for them. “It’s understandable that many kids are feeling scared, confused and angry about the situation. Parents (must) help children process what they’re seeing and manage their feelings,” Dr. Keyna Hammeed says in a “A Clinical Perspective on Talking to Kids About Racism,” published in Child Mind Institute.

At the same time, take into consideration the age of a child. Here are some basic guidelines from “Anti-Racism for Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide to Fighting Hate” from on what to tell your children: “Younger children are going to be supervised ideally at all times, so as a parent you have much more control about where your younger child goes and plays. With teens there are things they must be mindful of. For example, you may have a teen who decides to participate in a protest, so if they’re going to do that you have to talk about ways to stay safe.”

Explore Their Emotions and Help Them Through Them

Expect your children to become emotional when facing racism and hatred. Having them talk about their emotions will make it easier for you to provide the support needed. Talk with them about what caused a certain emotion and ways they can use that emotion for positive change within themselves and through their behaviors.

Your culture, experience and race should guide how you talk with your children about race. Parents of white children will not likely talk about race the same as parents of color who need to safeguard their children about the inherent dangers of racism for safety reasons. “Black families can’t afford to wait until adolescence to begin conversations about identity, and most black children, by age 10, have an adult view of biological and social racial constructs,” said Afiya Mbilishaka, a D.C.-based clinical psychologist and professor, to The Washington Post.

Reassure Children That It Will Get Better and Do Your Part

The long and pervasive history of racism can be daunting to face. Although current events can give children a sense that the problem is beyond solving, explain to them that improvements have been made. Use books, media and your own personal experiences to show them how to make a difference in the struggle. Remember that a positive and hopeful message will reinforce their ability to discuss racial issues and go further to helping society correct them.

Lastly, remember that more than what we tell our children, they learn mostly watching what we do. When a child sees their parents act culturally sensitive and respectful, or take a stand against bias, racism or insensitivity, they in turn act the same. No action is as powerful as the example we set for kids, especially when dealing with diversity.