Supporting Black Children's Emotional Health Amid Racial Injustice

June 12, 2020

Experts weigh in on some of the ways parents can support Black children as they navigate a social climate plagued by systemic racism and violence. 

Racialized injustice and violence have existed in this country for centuries, and Black and brown people attest to its presence and pervasiveness in their daily lives. The recent murder of George Floyd, which has triggered mass protests across the U.S. and the world demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism, has parents wondering how they can best support their kids. 

Check in on both yourself and your kids

In a recent interview with Embrace Race, Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith, a clinical child psychologist specializing in trauma and issues of race, suggested that parents check in on themselves first. Are you okay? If you’re not, then it will be tough to be there for your kids.

When you are centered, you can pay closer attention to your children and offer them the reassurance they desperately need. Listen to them — if they are younger, observe their behavior. If they are older, speak to them and listen carefully to get a sense of how they're feeling. On top of the COVID-19 outbreak, kids are also struggling with the wave of high-profile violence targeting African Americans, which the American Psychological Association recently declared a parallel pandemic. Every child is handling it differently, so it is essential to understand how your child is responding.

Follow your child's lead

Dr. Kari Groff, a New York City psychiatrist and mother of a biracial daughter, has both personal and professional experience thinking about these issues. "Not every child is the same, and to assume that there is one universally right way to approach the issues of racial violence would be erroneous," she said. "Each child has a different distress tolerance and ability to handle upsetting information. Some children are ready to make their voices be heard, to protest, to be very active. Other children may feel profoundly anxious or triggered by this information. And many children may be somewhere in the middle."

No matter where a child is, said Groff, "the most important aspect is that we listen to and respect their feelings and give them the space to be heard and to assure their safety and security. Tell your child that their feelings are important to you and their feelings matter and that you are ready to listen to them."

To assume that there is one right way to approach the issues of racial violence would be erroneous.  Each child has a different distress tolerance and ability to handle upsetting information. But no matter where a child is, tell him or her that their feelings are extremely important to you and be ready to really listen to them. — Dr. Kari Groff

Younger children don’t always know how to describe how they feel. In a recent interview with the LAist, family therapist Thea Monyeé suggested that parents ask kids to act out their feelings by moving their bodies and then help them find the words to put a name to what they are feeling. 

“Go beyond, like, happy, sad, mad. Frustrated is different than mad. Agitated is different. Annoyed is different," said Monyeé, who also encourages parents to share their complicated feelings with their kids, so that they can understand that it's normal to have more than one emotion at any given time. "Say things like 'I can hold joy in my body for when I see protesters kneeling together in silence with their fists up in the air. That brings me great joy. And I can also hold sadness for a business owner whose property was damaged.' "

Be honest with your kids

If your kids are younger and do not seem to be aware of what is going on, it can be tempting to try to keep it that way.

But according to Louise Derman-Sparks, who has worked for over 50 years on issues of diversity and social justice as a preschool teacher and author of several books about teaching anti-bias to children, younger kids are more ready for these conversations than parents might think.

“The truth is that young children notice differences very early. And by the age of 3 and 4, they're asking questions. They're beginning to develop and to absorb the stereotypes and misinformation, discomforts," Sparks said in a recent interview with PBS Newshour. "I don't like to call it prejudices. It's kind of like pre-prejudices. So, the myth that they aren't noticing, the idea of being color blind, actually harms kids."

The extensive coverage of the protests over George Floyd's murder by police, the shooting of Breonna Taylor during a police raid on her home and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery while he was out jogging almost guarantees that kids know what's happening — and probably more than they are letting on.

Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum told USA Today that it would be a mistake not to address the things young children might overhear on the news and the information older children may be getting online. “If parents are silent,” she said, “children will draw their own, often faulty, conclusions about what is happening and why. If you discuss what's happening with your kids, you can process these harsh realities together." 

"Regardless of the age of the child," said Tatum, "it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism, or unfairness, with messages about the possibility of change, and the community of allies who are working together to make things better.”

How some Black parents have been supporting their kids

Recent press reports of conversations Black parents are having with their kids reveal how adeptly parents are walking the line between teaching their children about racial injustice and bolstering their resiliency. Kids are learning harsh truths: About privileges they may not have because of their skin color. About the rules for how to act around the police and in predominantly white spaces. About how they cannot assume that everyone acknowledges their humanity.

Caron Jackson-Harrigan, a Black mother of two living in New Jersey, said in an interview with the Washington Post that she has been talking to her kids about race since they were toddlers and these conversations are more critical now than ever.

“There is no one ‘right way’ to talk to children about race. Mistakes are bound to be made, and kids’ racial thinking does not begin or end with a single conversation,” said Jackson-Harrigan. "They should never stop talking about race or educating themselves. Ask your kids if they’ve seen racist language in YouTube videos or comments. Help them understand how following or sharing racist accounts helps spread hate.”

Lalah Delia, an author and Black mother of two agrees. She has been educating her kids about racial issues for years with regular, meaningful discussions that focus on being “part of the solution and not the problem.”

“My son and daughter and I sit in weekly support circles at home, sharing what's on our hearts and minds, and in the world,” Delia said in an interview with Vogue. “The community-focused culture has allowed us to hold space for each other during this time.” 

The very worst parts of our existence as Black people in America are being discussed and structures that keep them in place dissected. I don't want [my children] to feel victimized, but free to be their entire Black selves and take pride in that. A balanced narrative must include their majesty, beauty and magic. — Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra

Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra, UNICEF USA’s Director of Integrated Brand Marketing, has two daughters, 7 and 9. Her husband was visiting his mother in Burkina Faso when the international borders closed to fight the spread of COVID-19. While he spent two months under curfew before he was able to fly home on a U.S. Embassy charter flight, Khaldun-Diarra and her daughters sheltered in their Manhattan apartment. In an essay she wrote about the trauma of recent events on top of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on their family and community, she said her main goal has been to make sure her children feel safe, loved, supported and empowered.

“The very worst parts of our existence as Black people in America are being discussed and structures that keep them in place dissected,” wrote Khaldun-Diarra, who is working to keep her girls informed while sheltering them in the love of their community. “I don't want them to feel victimized, but free to be their entire Black selves and take pride in that. A balanced narrative must include their majesty, beauty and magic."

Contact your Senators and urge them to cosponsor the Justice in Policing Act (S. 3912), a first step toward reimagining public safety in a just and equitable way.

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Anenwojo Omagu is pursuing a double major in International Studies and History at Fordham University in New York City. She is on the Executive Board of Fordham UNICEF, where she works to organize events that raise funds and advocate for UNICEF. 

Top photo: This young girl at a rally in Coral Gables, Florida, is one of many children who turned out to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while being pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. © Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images