Talking to kids about race and other difficult issues

During times of uncertainty – whether a global pandemic, political unrest or personal tragedy – parents and caregivers are an important source of support for children of all ages.

For many adults, talking about difficult topics such as race, violence and politics can be difficult.

Bernice Young, LCPC, is a therapist with OSF HealthCare who specializes in child and adolescent behavioral health.

Bernice points out that how a child responds to these events will depend on the child, their age and their experiences. However, all children are watching what happens in the world around them and sometimes need guidance from adults to make sense of what they see.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity for parents to look at where the kids are at and maybe educate themselves,” she said.

Start the dialogue

The first step is to ask a child what they know or feel about the issue.

“We have to check in with our kids and see how much they know. Sometimes, they don’t know anything; sometimes, they are finding out information from their peers and being influenced by that,” Bernice said.

Start by showing your child it’s safe for them to talk with you and share their feelings.

It’s also important to remember that children are watching how you respond. Parents serve as a model for children of all ages, so be thoughtful about what you say and do in front of them.

“Attitude is a reflection of leadership. Parents are the leaders in the household, and how they act and how they are perceived plays a significant role in what kids internalize. If parents are fearful, kids will have the feeling that something is wrong. They pick up on that.”

That doesn’t mean as a parent you won’t have difficult emotions, or that you shouldn’t express them – but you should be aware of how your reactions might influence your children.

“It’s important that parents have support systems where they can talk about how they feel. They need a safe space to vent, but we don’t want to do that with children of a young age,” Bernice said.

Parents should also take care to have conversations in an age-appropriate way.

Talking to preschool-age children

Even young children can pick up on things happening in the world around them, though they might not fully understand the situation.

When children can see the people around them are upset, but they don’t understand why, they might worry.

For very young children, Bernice emphasizes the importance of making sure children feel safe and secure.

Feeling stressed can have significant effects on kids, causing them to lose sleep or act out.

“I wouldn’t focus on the dangers of the world. Talk about kindness,” Bernice said.

“That’s a beautiful age to model how you want the world to be through love and kindness. Teach them how to share and love from a space of fairness.”

Talking to elementary school-age children

Again, start by asking them what they already know.

“Based on their response, you can decide if there is room for correction in their perception of it,” Bernice said.

Young children might perceive that a situation is worse or more dangerous than it actually is. But the opposite can also be true – kids may not realize how important something is. As adults, we can help them put these things into context.

When children express difficult or negative emotions during these conversations, parents can use the opportunity to reassure it’s OK to feel those emotions.

“In life, we are going to be disappointed, angry and embarrassed. There are a lot of emotions we are going to go through,” Bernice said. Acknowledging these emotions is an important step to coping with them in a healthy way.

Bernice uses an exercise in her practice to help families codify their value system.

“I think for all families it’s important to sit down and have a conversation about what family values are. Once you do that, kids will know what the expectation is and what this family stands for,” Bernice said.

“If you think of a family crest, it may have kindness, education, family. It gives kids a clear reminder that when you leave the house and you’re interacting with other people, are you acting in a way that is in line with this family’s values?”

Talking to middle and high school age children

As children approach adulthood, they might sometimes feel an increased sense of helplessness when they see violence or unrest in the world around them. They might also feel a sense of responsibility.

In 2020, young people in high school and college have been closely involved in community activism and demonstrations. As parents, we can help them understand how to use their voice for good.

“It’s a great time to talk about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. We want kids to know the difference between right and wrong, and we also want them to communicate in a way that is going to be heard,” Bernice said.

It’s also an opportunity for parents to educate themselves to help guide their conversations with their children. Older children might be getting information the news, social media or their peers – but they are still noticing how the adults in their life respond.

“It’s what we do in those moments to model for our kids how to continue on,” Bernice said.

“Kids are watching, how does my mother, my father, my caregiver handle this situation, because you’re teaching me how to do it.”

Additional resources for parents

The following resources are also available for parents from Healthy Children, a parenting website from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Last Updated: October 10, 2022

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Mental Health