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Local mom and Behavioral Health Coordinator with Embrace Families writes from her clinical expertise and personal experience talking with her own daughter

By Ashley Foster, MSW

As a parent, it can be hard to know what to say to your kids about the civic unrest and protests sweeping our nation. Like many adults today, I never had conversations about police brutality or discrimination with my own parents.

But as a biracial woman, as the wife of a black man and the mother of a black child, I need to equip my four-year-old daughter with the information she needs to be safe. I do so with the knowledge that, even if I raise her to be a model citizen, she will face injustice, hostility and possibly violence because of the color of her skin.

Ashley Foster and her daughter

Conversations about racism need to happen in all households – not just between people of color. Your children may not face discrimination, but you can teach them to listen to, empathize with, and advocate for others who do.

Your child may also feel stressed or anxious, as many of us do right now. Children are attuned to the emotions around them, and it’s important to help them understand and navigate what they feel. As you do, here’s what to remember:

  • Don’t overwhelm them. Kids absorb everything around them, but they don’t have the reasoning skills to process intense and frightening events – like much of what we see on the news. Limit access to media, but don’t avoid talking about current events for fear of upsetting your child. Remember: the situation, and not the conversation, is what’s scary.
  • Use age-appropriate language. Use words that children can understand and allow them to lead the conversation. It may help to share picture books or videos about racism, inequality and differences among people. If your child is upset, share books that explore themes of anxiety. Discuss how characters handle the challenges around them.
  • Keep calm. Our littles look to us for help regulating their big emotions. Keep your own feelings in check and be honest, but reassuring. If you don’t know the answer, that’s okay. Acknowledge that you need to do some research and explore the answers together.
  • Be available. Your child may want to talk about how they feel, but they may not know how to start that conversation – and both reactions are normal. Don’t force a discussion if they aren’t ready, but don’t hesitate to actively listen and encourage questions. Let them know you are always ready to talk.
  • Know the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural consequence of the times we live in – and that’s true for our children as well. These feelings and thoughts can manifest into physical responses such as stomachache, headache, sleeplessness, sweating palms or a racing heartbeat. Kids can also respond to emotional stress with anger, irritability or defiance, so remember to be patient.
  • Offer distractions, if needed. Taking deep breaths can help someone who is anxious get space from their thoughts; if your child is too upset to try that, ask them to blow up a balloon or blow bubbles. Encourage them to play with a favorite stuffed animal, sand, clay or a fidget toy for some kinetic distraction. Go for a walk or play catch. You can also play calming music or try a kid-friendly meditation app.
  • Seek support. A child’s anxiety is not a reflection of poor parenting, but it can make parents feel stressed and helpless. For your own mental health, it’s important to build a support network of family and friends. If your child’s anxiety worsens, consult your pediatrician or a mental health provider.

These are unsettling and uncertain times for all of us.  Parents and caregivers are the first line of support for children, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.  By addressing what we are experiencing with our children today, we are preparing the way for a better tomorrow for all of us.

Ashley Foster, MSW is a Behavioral Health Coordinator for Embrace Families, Central Florida’s nonprofit lead agency overseeing foster care and other programs that serve vulnerable families and childhood victims of abuse and neglect.

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