Most Black children in the United States encounter racism in their daily lives. 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.
Racism has long existed in America’s institutions and in Americans’ everyday interpersonal relationships. Anti-Black racism is inextricably intertwined with the history of the United States, beginning with slavery and continuing through today in the form of police violence, mass incarceration, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and other resources. While children of color across the country experience racial trauma every day without receiving broad public attention, there are galvanizing moments in which racism and racial violence manifest in the public eye—as seen in the 1955 case of 14-year old Emmett Till, the 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and now the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. The video footage of Mr. Floyd’s death captured by a 17-year-old Black girl has increased our sense of urgency to reject racism of all forms, and to help children and adolescents make sense of and cope with racial trauma.
It is common for caregiving adults to wonder and worry about how they should talk to children about racism and racial trauma. In fact, research suggests that too few caregivers talk to children about race. However, research on racial identity development and anti-racism education offers useful guidance for having these conversations effectively. Below, we outline several steps that caregivers can take to support all children, and especially those who have experienced direct or secondary racial trauma. While the evidence strongly suggests that caregivers need a holistic understanding of how, and in what ways, racial trauma impacts children and youth of all races and ethnicities, the recommendations below focus primarily on anti-Black racism and the racial trauma experienced by Black children and families. These recommendations can provide caregivers with a foundation for speaking with children about racism and racial trauma.
Caregivers should first acknowledge and reflect on their own beliefs, biases, and experiences with racism. White caregivers should gain a deeper understanding of their own White privilege. Both Black and White caregivers can educate themselves about Black history and racism so they can accurately relay relevant concepts and information to children. Caregivers of every race should educate themselves on race and racism and make the pursuit of new knowledge an ongoing activity.
Graphic stories or media coverage on racial violence and exposure to adult conversations can cause significant stress, anxiety, and fear in children, and can heighten their trauma symptoms. Adult self-care (e.g., social support, hobbies, mindfulness, healthy sleeping and eating patterns, therapy) gives adults the space to process difficult topics before involving children, and is an essential component of successfully regulating one’s own emotions to ensure that conversations with children are effective and not harmful.
It is beneficial for children and youth to become racially aware before they develop race-based biases. As soon as children understand the concept of fairness (which is typically well-developed by age 3), they can begin to learn that other people’s beliefs and attitudes about race shape those individuals’ racial identities and views of the world, for better or for worse. Talking to children about race and racism with a focus on promoting resilience to discrimination can help them feel empowered and hopeful about the future. For Black youth, such conversations can foster strength in the face of discrimination, healthy self-esteem, and self-efficiency; and can promote psychosocial well-being, a positive sense of racial identity, and overall comfort with who they are. Ongoing discussions are also essential for White children and youth to develop their racial awareness, identity, attitudes, and beliefs that are positive and healthy.
Use language that children understand (e.g., fair vs. unfair) and define terms that may be unfamiliar. Be honest and factual in discussing individual differences like skin color, hair texture, and color. Acknowledge that people are treated differently based on the color of their skin and that these different standards are unfair. Talk about how unfairness and racism are part of the history of Black people in this country, and how the histories of people from different races (e.g., Black, Hispanic, Native American, Alaska Native, White) differ in the extent and type of discrimination endured or privilege afforded. Shaping these conversations in age-appropriate ways means that caregivers can (and should) start these conversations early in a child’s life, when shame, fear, anxiety, and bias are first learned. Continue talking to children about race, racism, and White privilege on an ongoing basis, beginning in the preschool years. When children are very young, easy-to-understand explanations of ‘fair’ vs. ‘unfair’ are more appropriate than sharing graphic stories of police violence. However, as children grow older, they are likely to be exposed to such stories from other sources, so it’s best to provide them with truthful information that emphasizes what can be done to combat racism in the future and how they can participate in that effort.
It can be important for adult caregivers to share their own experiences and beliefs about racism with children, but it’s equally important to encourage them to express their opinions and feelings and ask the questions that are on their mind. Younger children may focus more on how events will affect them and those they love in the present, whereas older children may be more focused on the broader contexts of racism, such as what’s happening in their community and the world, and how they can make a positive difference. Children of color, especially, are likely to show or talk about their distress after witnessing or experiencing racism. Caregivers can validate their emotions and reactions by letting them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do and that others likely feel the same way. It’s also essential to find out what children know already and to correct misinformation. Caregivers can support Black children by listening to their experiences of and opinions about racism, and helping them think about how they might manage related situations and feelings. Caregivers can help White children identify and talk about racism they have witnessed or participated in, discuss how they can work against such discrimination, and how they have benefitted from White privilege.
Tell them that adults are working hard to keep Black people and other people of color safe by protesting and advocating for positive change, and to make sure that everyone is treated fairly, regardless of their race. Reassuring children that caregivers will help keep them safe can help them manage strong emotions that may surface. In addition, caregivers can maintain regular routines for eating, sleeping, playing, and learning to help children experience their world as predictable and safe. Caregivers can also check in with children regularly during heightened periods of exposure to racism to see how they feel and address their feelings in sensitive, responsive, and nurturing ways.
Highlight that law enforcement officers’ job is to keep all people safe, and that it’s not acceptable to treat people differently because of their race. Explain to children what they can do if they experience or witness racism or racial trauma (e.g., young children can tell a trusted adult). Given that older children (12 years and greater) have more procedural interactions with law enforcement officers and are likely to be unaware of their legal rights, older children can be educated about their legal rights and informed about what to do if they are profiled by law enforcement officers. Caregivers may seek guidance on how to proactively prepare children to navigate potential discriminatory police encounters.* However, it is important to reiterate to children that no matter how a person behaves, it is never right to discriminate against someone because of their race.
Tell children stories (both real and fictional) and include the reading of books with main characters who are Black; share stories that promote racial pride in Black children, triumph in the face of adversity, and the contributions of Black people to our nation’s growth and history. Encourage children to take an active role in fighting racism and making their voices heard. For example, children can make personal commitments to treat people fairly regardless of their race or ethnicity, celebrate the strengths of our nation’s diversity, become more educated about combatting race and racism, and engage in their community through activism, voting, and support for those who have been affected by racial inequities and racial trauma.
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.
Treat all people fairly: Celebrate and talk about the benefits of racial and ethnic diversity and allow for opportunities to socialize with people of different racial groups. Become a mentor and be a role model for anti-racist beliefs and behaviors. Continually seek opportunities to learn about racial injustice and tell children how you are actively working against racism.
* Note. Comprehensive research-based practices on how older children should respond to a variety of police-interactions remain scant.
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