Being a parent these days is becoming even more challenging than ever before. First, we have had to navigate the pandemic with our kids, including the uncertainty and the resultant feelings of anxiety and lack of control. In the past week, parents and kids have been exposed repeatedly to scenes of an African American man, George Floyd, being subjected to police actions that contributed to his death, followed by more imagery of protests, some turning violent, across the country. How can parents make sense of these events for themselves and their children?
Although these times and events are extraordinary and cumulative, talking with kids about traumatic situations follow some basic principles that may become lost in the fog of the past weeks news cycle.
First, parents have to take their own emotional temperature to see how they are feeling. This is especially important because kids respond most to the emotional communications that accompany the explanations we offer. Remember, it is the music that counts more than the lyrics!
Second, minimize repeated exposure to violent media content. The events of the past week are available 24/7 and while it is essential for kids and parents to talk, there may be a tendency for kids (and even adults) to expose themselves to repeated images as a way of trying to digest and cope with the traumatic events of the past week. Find a source you can trust to get the news, and when children watch, view the news with them and discuss what they are seeing.
Third, when talking with your children, start with these general principles:
- Ask what they know about George Floyd’s death and the protests. Children have access to information in many ways and assume they have some information. This will help you to share only what they need to know and what inaccurate information or perceptions to correct and discuss.
- Answer questions simply and be prepared to answer the same questions more than once. Adjust your explanations depending on the age and developmental level of your child. Remember that repeating questions is a way children signal that they continue to have concerns.
- Do not get put off by questions or demands that seem inappropriate.
- Assure children (particularly young children) that you are doing everything you can to keep them safe. Remember that children view events through their own developmental lenses and want to know basic things like: are you safe? Will I be safe?
- Reinforce basic routines because consistency breeds a feeling of safety and control.
- Be honest. If you do not know the answer to a question, say so and offer to try to find the answer.
Fourth, consider the following suggestions when discussing racism and violence.
- Focus the discussion about racism in ways children understand. For example, ask them how they feel when someone treats them differently because of their gender, ethnicity, religion, appearance, school grades, size of their house, etc. Use the following as resources: https://www.gse.upenn.edu/news/talking-children-after-racial-incidents
- Assure children that when law enforcement is present in schools, officers are carefully selected and trained, are not involved in routine discipline, and are evaluated regularly so they need not worry about their own safety.
- Recognize that this is likely the first in many conversations about racism and violence and children can only digest so much in one sitting. If you present yourself as calm and wanting to listen, kids will seek you out as a resource when they have questions or fears.