How to Talk to Your Kids About BLM Protests and Race

Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
kids at BLM protests

Some parents may have a difficult time talking to their children about protests and racism, while others find that it comes naturally, that it’s a part of their every day, lived experience. The difference here? Race itself. For white parents, this may be just another conversation, but for Black parents, it is likely their everyday lived experience that brings up anxieties, fear, and even traumatic memories as they explain societal inequity and systemic racism to a child.

Children — regardless of age — are aware of the tensions in our country due to media attention, passing conversations, and overhearing adults watching the news. Even young children may see or hear about televised incidents or racial injustice. They may listen to their friends talking about violence or brutality, and they may start to ask questions or look for information online. No matter how they become aware of what is going on in our cities and in our streets, an age-appropriate explanation is always better than staying quiet.

The Importance of Mental Health Check-Ins

Children can also experience vicarious trauma if they see images of violence or hear negative news. Regardless of the source — TV, radio, and social media can equally affect them. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create a safe environment for our children, talk to them about what they’re seeing and hearing, and do regular check-ins to make sure that they are not confused, afraid, or suffering.

One of the most important things to remember as a parent, as an adult in general, is that we may not have all the answers — and that’s OK. Sometimes, adults shy away from subjects, thinking that they are ill-equipped to discuss them, whether because they lack the knowledge or personal experience necessary to speak with their children. However, admitting that you don’t know everything shows kids that adults are also human. It also teaches them the habit of research, simple ways to find information when we do not know the answer. As long as we communicate with and listen to our children in a positive, loving, and respectful way, we are helping them. Therefore, these conversations about race and protest can only be beneficial.

Honest conversations are best

Conversely, not talking about, or purposefully avoiding discussing, distressing events can create anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. When children have the opportunity to talk about something upsetting with a caring adult, this conversation helps them feel safer and less scared of the situation as a whole. So, even when we do not know what to say and prefer to avoid having this discussion, saying something will always be better than staying quiet.

When we avoid difficult conversations or brush them under the carpet, we are communicating to the children that what is happening is OK. Ignorance, however, is not bliss and for us to let our children believe that racism does not exist, or even worse, that everyone is treated equally when, in reality, we know that is not the case can do lasting damage to your child’s sense of how the world operates.

Talking About Race is Essential

When we talk to children about racism, we are teaching them about respect, civics, ethics, equality, fairness, justice, and love for one another.

Research suggests that children, from an early age, can perceive racial differences. That means that children are noticing race before they hear or learn about it from their parents and relatives.

If you have young children, three to six years old, you can use toys, stories, books, and puzzles as teaching tools and help them recognize and celebrate difference. For older children, seven to twelve years old, you can use movies, documentaries, or information online. The use of electronic sources can be more appealing and potentially more engaging. No matter what you use to teach your children about the long-standing issues of racism and inequality in our country, it is essential to be present and to remind the children that they are safe, cared for, and loved. This prevents future attachment issues that can affect them later in life.

Exposure to a diverse environment

Another way to help our children learn about racism is to support socializing with a diverse cohort of other children — kids of every race. If they go to school with these children, they have a better opportunity to learn about different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures, become more well-rounded, and practice engaging with others who might not look like them. When children are exposed to differences, they typically see them more as unique attributes to be celebrated.

Keep it simple, but truthful

Speaking to children about racism and protests may not be easy. Still, if we start having these tough conversations while our children are young, it will not only become more comfortable for us over time, but will also ensure that they are brought up with important values such as fairness, respect, and love for one another.

When you start the conversation, keep it simple. Explain using examples your children have previously experienced or can easily envision. For instance, ask how they would feel if everyone in their class with blue eyes received a piece of chocolate, but they didn’t because their eyes were brown. Introduce concepts like disrespect and then move to inequality, racism, protests, and police brutality.

This may be your first serious conversation about these topics with your child, but it will not be your last. So, try to frame the conversation in a way that is memorable and meaningful to them; it will likely have a positive impact and they’ll remember that you were brave enough to be open with them about challenges as old as our country.

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