How to Discuss the George Floyd Tragedy and Racism with your Children

On May 25th, George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by a white police officer during an arrest over Floyd allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a market.  This moment of police brutality and the tragedy of Floyd’s death has caused tremendous civil unrest with protests, rioting and looting occurring for over a week now across the country.

As a child psychologist in private practice, the topic of Floyd’s murder, and all that has followed since, has entered the psychotherapy space for many of the parents I see.  Parents have expressed that their children are sad, anxious and angry, and many of them – especially younger children — do not know how to manage or discuss their feelings.

Racial biases, prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, diversity and ethnicity are some of the most difficult topics for parents to successfully address with their children, but they are also some of the most important of topics to cover. While setting a good example is a fine start for parents, having an open and honest dialogue about these complex topics is imperative, especially with our children having increased access to information via technology these days.

I offer the following four points for parents to consider in discussing the George Floyd tragedy and racism with their children:

  • Know your racial biases and prejudices before having a discussion. Numerous social psychology studies have shown that racial biases are more common than we may wish to believe. Racial biases, subtle or overt, can occur for anyone, regardless of skin color, and they do not discriminate across socio-economics; one can be poor or rich and possess racial biases. Racial biases and prejudice are a product of one’s upbringing and one’s experiences in life. So, before having a discussion about George Floyd or racism with your children, it is important to first examine your own shortcomings in these areas.
  • Minimize your children’s exposure to the media. Turn off the news! News agencies have been covering the George Floyd story extensively, and while it is a newsworthy topic, the graphic images and video footage have depicted aggression and violence that is inappropriate for children to see. Certainly, younger children do not possess the internal resources – cognitive or emotional — to put the images or the story and its complexity into full context. Very young children, for example, will not understand why police officers (who they are taught to believe do only good for citizens) could be accused of breaking the law and of doing bad things.
  • Keep your statements age appropriate. Research has shown that toddlers notice racial differences and tend to even prefer individuals of their own race at a very young age. Thus, it is important to take an inclusive and positive approach as parents when topics regarding racial similarities and differences come up. It is not until the elementary school years, however, that children begin to categorize things or people as being all “good” or “bad” or “best” or “worse.” Children in this age range also begin to think about social issues and are impressionable. Thus, this is an extremely important period of development for parents to respectfully address racial topics as they arise; with discussing racial differences toward increased understanding and compassion as the goal. Pre-teens and teens possess greater intellectual capacity, including abstract reasoning skills. Thus, addressing racial biases and prejudice in the context of history and real life social context is appropriate for this older age group. Of course, beyond chronological age, parents should also always consider their children’s emotional maturity and threshold for worry/anxiety when determining what they discuss regarding complex and charged topics, such as race.  In general, children and teens with more significant mental health or developmental struggles (e.g., Autism) will have greater difficulty understanding and making sense of topics that are more complex and emotionally intense.
  • Keep communication open. What happened to George Floyd can be a teachable moment for parents and children, however, discussions regarding race and race relations should be an ongoing process. Parents can take action in a number of ways to foster awareness and compassion in raising their children’s comfort level with diversity –purchasing toys or reading books that include other races or cultures, visiting museums of different cultures, taking part in cultural events or celebrations that differ from one’s personal experience, watching movies that address conflicts around diversity and race relations, signing children up for integrated sports, social or academic programs or even simply trying out an ethnic restaurant as a family are just a few proactive ways.

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn, VA 20147.