How to talk with your kids about unrest, racism: ‘Be honest’

Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of Montgomery County s Department of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services
Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of Montgomery County s Department of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services

“The talk” about racism is familiar to many black parents, but local experts said it’s critical all children learn about it early on.

“The best thing we can do is be honest with them,” said Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Montgomery County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services. “If we start raising all of our children early on to understand social injustice and racism and to help them understand why it isn’t right, then we will be able to finally get past some of this.”

She knows young boys of color often get the talk when they are about 5 years old, said Jones-Kelley.

“We begin to gird our kids,” she said. “And sadly in a way it almost minimizes them from the very beginning.”

Jones-Kelley remembers the first time a stranger called her the “n” word. She was 5, walking to the store in Cincinnati, when a man in a car pulled over and the young blonde boy in the car shouted the word at her, and then he and the man laughed as they drove away.

“I went to my room. I felt dirty,” said Jones-Kelley, recalling that day in the 1950s. “I knew it was wrong. So my mom had the talk with me.”

She recalled that childhood incident, and her memory of National Guard trucks rolling through Cincinnati during racial unrest in the 1960s, while talking about what parents should be saying to their children in today’s unsettled times.

Unrest is sweeping the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after lying handcuffed on the street in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, one of whom held his knee on Lloyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

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Jones-Kelley and other experts said listening to children and answering their questions in a straightforward, age-appropriate way is key to helping kids make sense of what is happening and to ease the fears they might have.

Protesters react to tear gas used by police officers to clear the intersection of North Fairfield Road and Pentagon Boulevard on Monday in Beavercreek. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Protesters react to tear gas used by police officers to clear the intersection of North Fairfield Road and Pentagon Boulevard on Monday in Beavercreek. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

“What’s important with any age child is that you give them the opportunity to talk to you about what they’ve seen. You ask them questions. What do you think is happening? What did you notice? How are you feeling?” said Shauna Dilworth, clinical supervisor of the Young Children’s Assessment and Treatment Services program at Samaritan Behavioral Health Inc.

“It’s important for you to give them the space to talk to you about it,” said Dilworth, adding that parents should give straightforward, truthful answers but also not go into great detail with very young children about things like Floyd’s death.

Dilworth suggested parents also broach the subject of the unrest when they know their kids might have seen images of the protests but haven’t asked questions.

“Ask them, ‘What do you think about that?’” Dilworth said.

She said their feelings may come out as they play, perhaps by having dolls act out what they have seen on TV, and parents can join in the play and talk with the child in that setting. Having multicultural toys and reading age-appropriate books about race is also helpful, she said.

“It’s not about seeing no color, it’s about appreciating people’s differences,” Dilworth said.

Parents should also put the events in context and use it as a teaching moment about American history and that “race issues and inequality are real,” said Betsy Linnell, Cedarville University assistant professor of psychology.

She suggested parents help kids understand that peaceful protesters might be shouting but it is because they want to bring change.

Betsy Linnell, Cedarville University assistant professor of psychology
Betsy Linnell, Cedarville University assistant professor of psychology

“The majority of the time people want to do what’s right. They are trying to give voice and help other people,” said Linnell, who is also a licensed professional clinical counselor. “Focus in on that love and compassion that we want them to have as children.”

RELATED: Officers take knee to show solidarity with protesters after tear gas in Beavercreek

Jones-Kelley said children need to be assured also that the “bad apples” are the exception and “we can’t paint all our police officers with a broad brush”

“Show them the police officers that take the knee,” Linnell said, referring to officers in the Dayton region and across the country who have expressed solidarity with protesters.

Cheers erupted after one officer took a knee. Two minutes later, a second officer took a knee, and, shortly after, three more Beavercreek officers took a knee. Other officers dropped their shields on the pavement. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Cheers erupted after one officer took a knee. Two minutes later, a second officer took a knee, and, shortly after, three more Beavercreek officers took a knee. Other officers dropped their shields on the pavement. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Many children already are anxious because of the COVID-19 crisis that has upended lives and killed more than 106,000 people in the U.S. In the Dayton region there is also the lingering trauma of 2019, when 16 tornadoes ravaged a wide swatch of communities on Memorial Day and a mass shooter killed nine and wounded multiple people in Dayton's Oregon District on Aug. 4.

RELATED: Memorial Day Tornadoes: Slow road to recovery

“There is definitely increased risk for anxiety and depression,” Linnell said.

Parents can help by giving children ideas on how to control their emotions, Linnell said. For example, she said, a teenager who is angered by racial injustice and the other events happening can be told ways “to give voice safely” as well as advised of the danger of mob mentality and the legal consequences of expressing anger through vandalism or violence.

“They need to tell them that feeling the feeling is OK. What we do with the feeling is what changes it to not OK,” Dilworth said. “

Sometimes professional help is needed for children who are traumatized by events.

“Some kids who have experienced trauma need services, just a person to talk to. Sometimes the parent is enough,” Dilworth said. “Oftentimes, being heard begins the healing process. And the therapist is just the vehicle for that.”

Signs that a child is traumatized and may need professional help include:

  • Comments about wanting to be dead.
  • Withdrawal from activity.
  • New fears the child previously did not have, such as fear of going outside or of police officers.
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares.
  • Overeating or not eating.
  • Escalated or out of control behavior.
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering.
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches.

Jones-Kelley said it is important that children be reassured of their essential worth and be exposed to people who are not like them so they can appreciate the diversity of the world. And she talked about the importance of believing in a brighter future.

“There will be times that are difficult. We have to talk about it,” said Jones-Kelley. “But we have to remember that the other side of this is hope.”

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Recommended books addressing race

Picture books

Let’s Talk About Race - Julius Lester

M is for Melanin - Tiffany Rose

The Skin You Live In - Michael Tyler

The Day You Begin - Jacqueline Woodson

Each Kindness - Jacqueline Woodson

My Hair is a Garden - Cozbi Cabrera

All Are Welcome - Alexandra Penfold

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History - Vashti Harrison

Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness - Anastasia Higginbotham

Lovely - Jess Hong

A is for Activist - Innosanto Nagara

The Skin I’m in - Pat Thomas

The Color of Us - Karen Katz

Something Happened in Our Town - Marianne Celano

We are America - Walter Dean Myers

Hands Up! - Breanna McDaniel

Skin Again - Bell Hooks

Don’t Touch My Hair - Sharee Miller

We Came to America - Faith Ringgold

Chapter books and young adult books

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

This Book is Anti-Racist - Tiffany Jewell

If You Come Softly - Jacqueline Woodson

Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds

The Parker Inheritance - Varian Johnson

Monster - Walter Dean Myers

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Mildred D. Taylor

Ghost Boys - Jewell Parker Rhodes

Blended - Sharon Draper

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - Christopher Paul Curtis

Piecing Me Together - Renee Watson

This Side of Home - Renee Watson

Genesis Begins Again - Alicia D. Williams

We Are Not Yet Equal - Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden

Dear Martin - Nic Stone

All American Boys - Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

How It Went Down - Kekla Magoon

The March Trilogy - John Lewis

The Lines We Cross - Randa Abdel -Fattah

I Am Alfonso Jones - Tony Medina

New Kid - Jerry Craft

Books for adults

We Were Eight Years in Power - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Thick: And Other Essays - Tressie McMillan Cottom

Becoming - Michelle Obama

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones

We Cast a Shadow - Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

Beloved - Toni Morrison

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

Red at the Bone - Jacqueline Woodson

If Beale Street Could Talk - James Baldwin

Go Tell It On the Mountain - James Baldwin

Push - Sapphire

12 Years a Slave - Solomon Northup

Source: Samaritan Behavioral Health Inc.

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