What to tell your child about racist violence

It’s not always possible to shield children from the realities of racism, even at a young age. Parents can provide tools for children to learn how to communicate and ask for help.

Racist violence against Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx communities is a sad reality, especially in the United States. Particularly now with rising cases of violence against Asian Americans and ongoing news coverage of police brutality against Black people, it’s not always possible to completely shield children from it. But in the aftermath of racist violence, you can provide tools for your child to learn how to communicate and ask for help.

You may feel that your child isn’t ready for a conversation about race and racism, but your child is likely already using race to understand the world. One popular study of 100 white children and 100 Black children found that the infants could nonverbally categorize people by race and gender at 6 months of age, and another study found that 3-5-year-olds in a racially diverse daycare center used race as a factor for inclusion and exclusion during play among their peers.

Additionally, children often learn about current events on the news, social media, or from their friends. Without guidance from their support system, they may begin to believe that it’s impolite to discuss race, or feel shame or confusion if they are being associated with the victims of violence. For parents these conversations may feel uncomfortable, but raising a family committed to racial justice is an active daily effort.

How to care for your child and yourself

By letting them know that you are there to support them and answer their questions, you can help your child develop tools to communicate how they feel and feel safer knowing that you support and love them. Here’s how:

  1. Set up your own support. Learning about another incident of racist violence can foster a number of feelings, like fear, anger, guilt, or grief. Lean on your own systems of support by reaching out to loved ones, your community, mental health professionals, and your Cleo Guide. Caring for yourself can help you better support your child, as well.
  2. Ask your child what they know. This can be a helpful way to open a conversation because you’ll know what is on your child’s mind, providing an opportunity to correct misconceptions.
  3. Share a little information at a time. For some children, it may be enough to simply share that someone hurt other people. For other children, you may want to add more details – but remember that you can always revisit this conversation again later. Start slow and give them time to process what you’ve told them. Then, return with more details later if you feel it’s needed.
  4. Let your child know that you love them and support them. This can be especially important if your child identifies with the victim(s) of racist violence. Let them know that while others may treat them differently because of their race or another characteristic, their identity and culture is nothing to be ashamed of. It is something they can celebrate and be proud of.
  5. Limit media exposure. Studies show that the more time children spend watching coverage of the tragic event, the more likely they are to have negative reactions. Do your best to limit watching the news or listening to the radio near your child. When they do watch, listen, or read the news, discuss it with them and ask about their thoughts and feelings.
  6. Take action. Sometimes, taking action can mitigate feelings of helplessness or fear. Check out your local organizations, community centers, and organizing groups for a child-friendly march, fundraiser, donation drive, or other volunteer opportunity. Being among people who are demonstrating their care and commitment to their community can be healing and inspiring.