May 30, 2020
by Dr. Jules Nolan, Mounds Park Academy school psychologist
Your children may be asking questions about the events in Minneapolis and St. Paul that have evolved over the past week. It can be difficult to talk to them about racism, violence, social injustice, and unrest, but it is important to do so. Here are some tips for talking about these difficult issues.
For Lower School Children
First, help them feel that you and your family are safe. We do this by managing our own strong emotions of fear and anxiety, and co-regulating with them. When we feel calm, it helps them to feel calm.
Answer questions directly, but don’t give them more information than they are asking for. If they ask about the protests you could say, “People are marching and carrying signs because some people are being hurt because of the color of their skin and protesters are asking for it to stop.” Turn off media and watch what you say in front of them, even if it appears that they are not listening. They hear everything.
This is a good time to develop emotional vocabulary by naming feelings. Remind your children that while it doesn’t feel nice to be afraid or sad or worried, they are strong enough to have these feelings and still be okay. Then talk about the things they like to do that help them feel better. Help them manage their own feelings by modeling managing your feelings.
You can talk to small children about racial injustice in a simple way, for instance by saying that some people are mean to other people for no reason and that we stick up for people who are treated unfairly. Talk about times they helped others who were hurting or sad. Then help them to participate in some benevolent action, donating food, cleaning up neighborhoods, making cards, and other acts of service. If you would like to act locally, here are some organizations that are asking for help.
For Middle School Children
They also need to be assured of your family’s safety and we co-regulate with our children in this stage too. While they may seem more oblivious to our emotional states, they can “feel” it when we are tense, angry, worried, sad, etc., and it may make them feel agitated even if they don’t know why. Practice calming yourself.
They can be insensitive to others’ suffering at this age. Don’t get overly worried and don’t lecture or shame them if they say something that offends you, that seems racist, or is unkind. Remember that at this time they have MORE trouble taking the perspective of others. Correct them without anger, outrage, or shame. For example, if they want to joke about race or violence, you might say “it is never funny to ridicule other people or laugh at others’ suffering.” This might upset them and they may argue that they are “just kidding.” Accept that as an explanation. Your message gets through to them better if you do it calmly and without outrage. If comments persist, it is perfectly acceptable to give a consequence for breaking the “we have respect for all people and treat others fairly” rule in your house. It doesn’t have to be a “big” consequence, just a reminder that they broke a rule.
Help middle-grade students become involved in the cause of social justice, but take their lead and support their ideas for ways to be helpful. They are more likely to engage in good works if it is their idea. Here is a resource for white families to do something about racism.
After age 12, kids can engage in deeper conversations about race, violence, and social justice (ages 10-12 can be a judgement call, sometimes they are more like small children, sometimes like older kids). Answer their questions frankly and briefly. Do more listening than you do talking and help them to develop critical thinking skills to examine situations from many angles.
For Upper School Students
Real, meaningful conversations can be had around these issues with Upper School students. Our instinct may be to protect them from these hard realities, and keep them from feeling strong negative emotions, but protecting them does not help to prepare them for the world they will live in. Be frank, remind them that we are on the front lines of necessary social change in this country and we can handle feeling sad and scared, angry and overwhelmed on behalf of social change. They are strong enough to handle these emotions.
Encourage them to talk to one another about these issues and to brainstorm ways to help each other cope. Remember that their peers are more influential than you are at this stage and they need time and space to individuate from you.
If your children are really struggling, if you see big changes in their eating or sleeping patterns, if they have lost interest in the things they used to love, or if they have become so irritable and volatile that you can’t predict their reactions, reach out to a professional. It is easier now than ever before connected to telehealth. Here is a resource to help locate a therapist. Use the filters (on the left side of the page) to find just the right person by area, insurance, and specialty.
Remember that children who are most resilient to chronic stress and trauma have three things in common:
1. They have some choice (control) in their lives.
2. They feel connected to something important (doing good works).
3. They have social relationships that are fun.
Take care of yourselves and of each other.