Talking about race can be a daunting endeavor and many parents struggle with where to begin.

Children are like sponges; they soak up information from everywhere. Kids pick up on cues from their friends, family, news headlines and social media. Although discussing race can seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be.

Parents often have anticipatory anxiety when it comes to these discussions. On the bright side, the fear of what could unfold is often much worse than the actual conversation that takes place.

Many parents have concerns about potentially “pointing out” race to their children due to fear of drawing attention to something kids may not notice yet. As much as we might want that sentiment to be true. Children are very perceptive and are already quite aware of differences in people. As an example, take height, weight, age, hair color, stature, style of dress, and many other attributes of a person’s presentation. Skin color is just one aspect of many that make up a person’s identity.

One consistent attribute of children is their exploration of the world in the form of questions. If they have seen protests on the streets or in the news, chances are they have already asked someone about them.

It’s important to have this discussion with kids because this historically taboo topic is not going away. Children are very vigilant and will directly observe how parents address the topic of race and racism in their own lives – or how they don’t. Instead of thinking of this discussion as terrifying, think of it as an opportunity to help your child become a more understanding, empathetic, and caring human being.

Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Be open

Children are curious by nature. They are going to ask you tough questions. And it’s ok to not have all the answers. If they ask you a question you don’t know how to answer, tell them that. By doing so you’re successfully modeling that adults don’t have all the answers all the time, and taking time to think about your response is ok.

2. Differences and commonalities

Children are much more likely to see the world through a lens of what makes people different from one another. It’s easier to conceptualize what is different, as opposed to what is similar, especially for younger children. For example, if your child asks why their skin color is different from another child’s, acknowledge that their observation is valid, and also acknowledge that although people are different they also have similarities. Share that while people may look different, we can still have many things in common.

3. Be curious

This is a stressful time and your children are likely to be feeling this too. Encourage them to talk to you about things they have on their mind, and to be curious about what is happening around them. If you don’t know how your child is managing with these stressors, ask them – chances are they have a lot to say but don’t know how to bring it up.

4. Explore

There are many fun and creative ways to bring diversity into your home. Try watching a foreign film and having a discussion about it at the end. Find a new recipe to try and help your kids research the country it came from and the people who live there. Exposing kids to different social groups helps improve cross-cultural communication, understanding and empathy.

5. Check in with yourself first

Children will look to the adults in their lives for guidance. If you’re not sure how you feel about what’s going on, take some time to think about it. Talk to people you trust, read and educate yourself on current events so you feel comfortable with the questions your kids might ask you.

Remember, your children don’t expect you to be perfect. And it’s ok to not have all the answers. This is a unique time in history, and presents an opportunity to talk to you children about racism, equality, kindness, empathy and respect.

Our mental health is often affected by our experiences. How does racism, in our communities and on college campuses, shade our experiences and our minds?

On June 17, 2015, nine African-American individuals were killed by a white man in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He stated his motive was “to shoot black people.” The congregants were specifically targeted for their race and this tragedy is not an isolated event. Many minority groups are negatively targeted for their race and experience prejudice, disrespect, and violence. While most people experience some mental health consequences after a mass shooting, because of the racist overtones of this event and the many like it, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are increasing in minorities.

In general, findings support the theory that perceptions of racism are positively associated with psychological distress and inversely associated with psychological health. More importantly, the longer the individual is exposed to racism, the more likely they are to report mental distress. This means individuals may not seek help for their psychological problems due to race-related stress until it becomes unbearable. What seems like a small incident may trigger an enormous stress reaction because of the cumulative nature of racism (Okazaki, 2009).

For Black Americans, one of the most commonly reported experiences tied to poor mental health is racism (Pieterse, Todd, Neville, & Carter, 2012). That doesn't bode well with the particularly troubling challenges Black Americans face today.

Young college students are particularly high risk as well(Hwang & Goto, 2008). Asian American and Latino American students have been found to have increased levels of anxiety when experiencing racism and particularly when recalling past experiences of racism.

For college students, campus mental health services play an important role as many students report feeling stereotyped and experiencing biased treatment by professors, staff, and other students. But college mental health services are notoriously lacking; which begs the question, can we help students cope with the inherent racism they face on campus and in the world? Is it possible to encourage all people to seek help before mental distress becomes mental illness?

Various coping skills are used when it comes to being involved with race-fueled problems. But not all coping mechanisms are created equal; so it is imperative to recognize which coping skills work best and strike a balance between staying healthy and staying safe. Avoidant coping skills are found to be disadvantageous to one’s mental well-being, but can protect victims of racism from perpetrators “leveling up” as reaction to negative feedback. Antagonizing a person displaying violently racist behaviors can quickly become dangerous for the target and those around them.

But avoiding every perpetrator or attempting to ignore any racism can lead to suppressed anger, fear, rumination, and guilt (Forsyth & Carter, 2012). Spiritual coping is typically associated with lower psychological distress, but should be supplemented with more direct and active approaches to address the race-related incident when it’s safe to do so. Those who take an active stance against racism fare far better psychologically than those who accept unfair treatment (Kwate & Goodman, 2015). These direct approaches to racism not only aid individuals who experience racism in preventing more serious psychological problems in the future, but hopefully diminish the acts of racism altogether.

Another important factor in diminishing the effects of racism is community support. No matter how racism affects your life, take a stance against offenders that perpetuate the cycle of racism. Keeping quiet and accepting this unjust treatment can have toxic ramifications later in life for individuals and communities. We may not be able to end racism right away, but we can certainly learn to utilize direct coping skills to positively benefit our mental health and help decrease racism in today’s society.

Sources

Forsyth, J., & Carter, R. T. (2012). The relationship between racial identity status attitudes, racism-related coping, and mental health among Black Americans. Cultural Diversity And Ethnic Minority Psychology18(2), 128-140. doi:10.1037/a0027660

Hwang, W., & Goto, S. (2008). The impact of perceived racial discrimination on the mental health of Asian American and Latino college students. Cultural Diversity And Ethnic Minority Psychology14(4), 326-335. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.14.4.326

Kwate, N. A., & Goodman, M. S. (2015). Cross-sectional and longitudinal effects of racism on mental health among residents of Black neighborhoods in New York City. American Journal Of Public Health105(4), 711-718. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302243

Miller, M. J., Yang, M., Farrell, J. A., & Lin, L. (2011). Racial and cultural factors affecting the mental health of Asian Americans. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry81(4), 489-497. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2011.01118.x

Okazaki, S. (2009). Impact of racism on ethnic minority mental health. Perspectives On Psychological Science4(1), 103-107. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01099.x

Pieterse, A. L., Todd, N. R., Neville, H. A., & Carter, R. T. (2012). Perceived racism and mental health among Black American adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal Of Counseling Psychology59(1), 1-9. doi:10.1037/a0026208

Additional edits by Daniayla Stein

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free, 24-hour hotline at 1.800.273.8255. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.