Talking to Children and Youth about Racism and Associated Violence
Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP
Heinous acts of racism caught on camera as well as the recent deaths of unarmed black persons – including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – by current or former law enforcement officers have shaken the country. While to some it may appear as though racist acts have proliferated as of late, persons of color know differently: the racism that has always been there is being captured in ways not possible prior to the past decade. As the actor, Will Smith, has said, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”
Being able to record and broadcast instantaneously racist acts and killings of people through various social media platforms has led to the increased exposure of children and youth to frightening and horrific images. Such exposure can cause trauma in this population; additionally, it may lead to confusion, fear, anger, and the distrust of others. Younger children may have a more difficult time processing these complex feelings and emotions; children with intellectual and other disabilities may also be challenged in their ability to interpret and understand racism and associated violence.
You, as a trusted adult in the lives of children and youth, play an important role in helping young ones understand what racism is. Whether you’re a family member, spiritual leader, educator, or school-based mental health professional (i.e., school psychologist, school counselor, or school social worker), you can help explain complex concepts such as privilege; how to mitigate the effects of racism on one’s mental and physical safety and well-being; and strategies children and youth can employ to work for social justice. While you may find it difficult and/or uncomfortable to address these topics, your willingness to do so can minimize the potential trauma children and youth may experience due to their direct or virtual exposure to – or complicity in – racism and acts of violence. Through this process, you also model the vulnerability, honesty, authenticity, and communication skills they will need to develop and hone moving forward to dismantle racism, whether it’s holding up the mirror to one’s own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors or working as part of a larger group to change the institutions that perpetuate racism.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provides resources on teaching children and youth about race, racism, privilege, and social justice. From helpful handouts to lesson plans teachers and school-based mental health professionals can use in schools, the range of related topics and materials is continuously broadened. You can access these materials through the NASP website: www.nasponline.org. When talking to children and youth about race and racism, be sure to…
- Listen. Let kids’ questions and statements guide your conversation with them.
- Honor and validate children’s feelings.
- Ask questions. Based on what children say, use questions as a way to process their thoughts and feelings; questions can also get children to consider various perspectives.
- Educate yourself. Deepen your own understanding of race, racism, and privilege; your place in a racist society such as the U.S.; and what you can do to dismantle racism.
- Challenge others. Call out people when they make racist comments or behave in racist ways. We all have a responsibility to disrupt and eradicate racism.
- Become trauma informed and trauma sensitive. Racism takes a toll on all people, both physically and mentally. People of color (POC), on the receiving end of racism, deal with historical and personal traumas that permeate life.
NASP also offers guidance on how to talk to children and youth about violence. Some tips include:
- Provide children and youth with the reassurance you are doing what you can to keep them safe.
- Be present and listen; observe children and youths’ emotional state. Some children talk about their feelings; others may express themselves through play, in writing, or through drawing. Validate children’s feelings and let their questions and other expressions guide your conversation with them.
- Work to keep your explanations about violence as developmentally appropriate as possible. For example,
- When talking with younger children, provide constant reassurance and keep what you say brief, simple, and free of graphic details.
- Tweens and young teens may ask more questions and may need assistance in separating reality from fantasy. Appropriate reassurances of safety may quell some of the anxiety they may be feeling.
- Adolescents may express strong and varying opinions about sources of violence; they may also provide concrete suggestions about how to address violence. Stress the roles adolescents play in maintaining safe school and community environments and reaching out to trusted adults with concerns about their own safety or the safety of others.
- Limit television and social media viewing of violent events. The goal here is to minimize exposure to traumatizing images, sounds, scenes, and explanations of violence that are overwhelming and that are not developmentally appropriate, which can increase anxiety in children and youth.
- Review safety procedures. Whether at home, at school, or in the community, help children and youth identify trusted adults they can seek out if they feel unsafe or at risk.
- Maintain as typical a routine as possible. Familiar routines and environments provide a sense of safety for many children and youth but do not push them if they appear to be overwhelmed.
While racism and violence are complex issues that are not easily solvable, we, as trusted adults, can help children and youth manage their experiences and reactions to them. We can also shore up their resiliency and empower them to pick up the mantle and continue the work needed to create the world for which we are striving.
For more information, check out these resources:
- Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. London: OneWorld Publications.
- National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). Talking to children about violence: Tips for parents and educators [handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Available at: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/school-violence-resources/talking-to-children-about-violence-tips-for-parents-and-teachers
- National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). Understanding race and privilege [handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Available at: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity/social-justice/understanding-race-and-privilege
- Tatum, B. D. (2017). “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race (20th anniversary ed.). New York: Basic Books.
-Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP
Professor of School Psychology, Department of Counseling and School Psychology, College of Education & Professional Studies, University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF)