Counselors and educators from Duluth and beyond weighed in on how to talk to kids about what’s going on around us.
George Floyd’s death was too big an event for every young child to not be affected by it in some way.
White families have the privilege of choosing when and how to talk to their children about race and racism. Families of color experience the repetitive trauma of systemic racism in their daily lives, so topics of race and racism have likely already come up before Floyd’s death, said Ann Gadzikowski, author, educator and director of early learning at Encyclopaedia Britannica.
So, how you approach may differ depending on your family’s experiences, but here’s a general approach.
Before you start
Make sure you’re in a good head space before stepping into the conversation.
“Any mentor, parent, guardian, brother, sister, anybody who has a touch point with children, you should be a soft place for them to land and a safe place for them to ask questions. Period,” said Dawn Peterson, licensed social worker and director of Community Services Northwood Children’s Services.
Process your feelings, receive strong support for yourself.
Racial relationships are a difficult conversation for adults, so come to terms with your own biases, process your feelings, receive support for yourself and enter the conversation with openness.
How to start
There can often be a sense of “If I bring it up, I’m putting it in their head,” but children are exposed to what’s happening, said Amy Fullerton, chief therapist and outpatient services supervisor.
Acknowledge that there’s a lot of information out there, and start with asking what they know.
Follow with “What do you think about that?”; “What kind of questions do you have about that?”
If they ask what happened, consider the child’s age and their sensibilities. With that in mind, there is a way to relate that a man was made powerless in a situation with police. He died while in their custody.
“I wouldn’t hide it; I wouldn’t call it something other than what it is,” Fullerton said.
Children have big feelings; don’t underestimate them. It’s important to start where children are.
Reinforce for kids that all feelings are OK, and let the child release their feelings and questions. Children ages 3-5 need more direct reassurance from their families that they’re going to be OK.
Focus on active listening. Stop what you’re doing, offer eye contact. Ask direct questions that help the children put into words what they’re feeling. What you do next will depend on what they share, Gadzikowski said.
Come from a place of empathy, sympathy and connection. These are invaluable assets to bring to the conversation. Sit with them and their feelings.
About police brutality
It depends on the family’s direct experience with police officers, but you could start by asking “What do you know about police? How do you feel when you see them?”
If the child expresses fear or concerns for safety, avoid minimizing or dismissing.
If it becomes an issue, one option is to consider exposing children to safe police officers to help deflate some fear.
It’s also OK to say “I’m confused about this” or “I don’t have the answers.”
“Let’s try to find some answers together” can be empowering and validating for children, Fullerton said.
If a child brings you experiences of racism or injustice, validate their feelings.
In our best efforts to help, we think our role is to make things better, added Fullerton. That’s not it a lot of times. She offered this: “That must’ve been really hard on you. I’m so glad you shared that with me. How can I help?”
How to wrap
This conversation is ongoing, so leave the door open. Let the child know they can resume it at any time and check back with new questions or observations when they pop up. Encourage them to write them down, so you can discuss all of them.
In Fullerton’s sessions, she asks children to identify other safe adults with whom they can speak, as she often only sees clients once or twice a week. Reinforce that the topic can be brought up at any time. Navigating and processing this is a lifelong journey.
Remember, it’s an honor and a responsibility to be the person a child approaches about these matters, Peterson said.
Acknowledge the grief of a consistent lifestyle change, make space for it and redirect toward acceptance. Reinforce the safety precautions of COVID-19, the importance of masks and physical distancing. Acknowledge that there are factors outside of your control.
Identify together what you can control. Listing them on paper can be very helpful. Build and maintain a sense of consistency through a schedule and daily tasks, Fullerton said.
Emphasize and normalize your new structure. “This is what we do now,” for instance, said Peterson.
Make space to hear the child’s feelings about school, changes in sports and extracurricular activities, etc. Acknowledge this is a stressful situation for everybody. It’s key for a child’s support person to take care of themselves. You can’t give care if you’re running on empty. And be gentle. When was the last time that either of these issues have impacted the entire globe, said Peterson.
Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Stay calm. Kids will respond to your words and execution, and they pick up on what you say to them and others.
Avoid blaming language. It’s not helpful.
Reinforce for your child that they are safe.
If they share about stress, it’s OK to briefly share your feelings to connect with them. Also, share how you constructively deal with stress.
Stay cognizant of what the child takes in online, on TV, etc. Think about screen time restrictions in regard to COVID-19. Information overload can beget anxiety.
Share age-appropriate and truthful information with the child.
Remind kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow, to wash their hands frequently and stand 6 feet away from others.