How to talk to loved ones about hate and racism

Helpful ways to navigate complex times

In the wake of all the hate and racism in the news, it’s hard not to feel upset. Bullying, domestic terrorism, and fear are not what we signed up for. How can we talk about racism vs. rapport to loved ones, including kids, and what are helpful things to say when they are feeling confused or unsafe? Here are a few strategies that you can use right now:

1. We are all the same inside: There’s a story about a mother who, making breakfast, used the last white egg in the carton. She then reached for another carton of eggs which happened to be brown eggs. When her young son got worried that these eggs were a different color, she asked him what he noticed. “They are different colors on the outside,” he answered, “but on the inside, it looks the same.” “Exactly,” said the mom, “just like people - different shades on the outside, but inside, we are all the same.” What an easy way to illustrate our shared humanity.

2. Model inclusivity and friendship: How you speak about other people will be copied by your kids – guaranteed. If you invite friends of many cultures to your home, your children will be comfortable with people of all backgrounds. If you respond to people with an open attitude, kids will pick that up too. Research states that kids are wired for compassion, and this skill can be strengthened. We even teach this as a skillset in schools. The message: model tolerance instead of animosity.

3. Healthy boundaries: What if you have an uncle, a parent or family friend who is prejudiced? This is an opportunity to draw the line: in this house we stand for kindness, inclusion and appreciation. On another note, if you are dating or even married to someone who holds different views, discussions can get messy. When you get into the granular details of politics and go head to head, there are no winners. Try to elevate the conversation towards universal values; most people would agree on the idea of respect, love and kindness.

But what happens after a traumatic event, when people are senselessly hurt or killed. How do you talk about that?

4. Process your feelings first: If it means going for a walk or doing an errand while you get through the initial flood of emotions, give yourself the space to regain your center. If kids see you upset, their mirror neurons get activated - they tune into your emotions, not only what you do. Whether it is anger, shock or fear, it is contagious.

5. Be sincere but reassure safety: It is okay to let children know you are sad or angry, but make sure you also let them know that things will get better. Instead of talking about the worst that could happen, reassure them that, “We are safe. We are also strong and we stand for kindness, even when some people do and say mean or hurtful things.” Remind them that good people, helpers such as doctors, EMT’s and ordinary people are getting involved to bring people together instead of apart. It’s a good time for hugs which increase oxytocin, a hormone which promotes a feeling of safety and love. Above all, don’t blast the news on the TV or be on your phone 24/7, and be aghast or infuriated at the latest headline - the only thing that will do is escalate anxiety.

6. Make time to connect: Some kids will want to talk about what they are hearing and some will not - they may be too scared by what they are feeling to bring it up. It’s best if you sit with them and begin lightly. It could be as simple as asking them: “What have you heard about …. How does it make you feel? What are you and your friends thinking?” Don’t force the discussion on children, or tell them adult solutions, or give them more information than they have asked for. Instead, go gently and follow their lead. A lot of kids have anxiety - you want to soothe rather than fuel it.

7. Help them feel their feelings: Don’t interrupt and dismiss what they are feeling. Don’t say “I know you’re scared, but don’t be.” They’ll shut down. Use active listening; reiterate what they are saying and ask if you got it right. Normalize their feelings. “It’s natural to be scared, everyone feels scared sometimes…”

8. Keep your answers developmentally appropriate: After the Paris terrorist attacks one father told his young son, “They have guns, but we have flowers.” You could just see the relief in the child’s face.

  • Elementary school children need brief, simple information with reassurances that their daily life will be the same.
  • Middle school children may ask if they truly are safe. Some may need help discerning reality from fantasy. Explain that the chance of something dangerous happening to your child is very very small.
  • High school students will have strong feelings about the causes of violence and the accompanying threats. They will likely have ideas, suggestions and may be more interested in doing something to help the victims, which lead us to:

9. Take Action: Help your loved ones or your child turn fear into action. Writing letters to victims and their families, especially after a shooting or natural disaster is a way of showing support. Sending thank you notes to those on the scene: doctors, paramedics, firefighters, or police also helps. Raising money for charity can make people feel they are part of the solution and move from a feeling of powerlessness.

Whether it’s focusing on inclusivity, managing your emotions so you can help others with theirs or connecting in gentle and empathetic ways, with a little mindfulness, it is possible to navigate complex times and bring out the best in those around you. Every single person can make the choice to move towards harmony or separation. You can direct your energy, and you have more influence than you know.

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