As violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, with three killed and dozens injured at one of the largest white nationalist rallies in a decade, TV screens and newsfeeds across America were filled with images of chaos and terror.
While politicians including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Senator Dianne Feinstein reacted by condemning the attacks, calling for “hope and prayers for peace” and reminders that “violent acts of hate and bigotry have no place in America,” parents seeing the news were faced with a dilemma that’s becoming an increasing concern for American families: if, and how, to talk about violence and racism with their children.
Mental health experts and parents discussed their experiences Saturday, and shared advice for talking to children about the violence in Charlottesville. Here are their tips:
1. Talk to your kids, but educate yourself first
It’s reasonable to want to protect children, to maintain their innocence for as long as possible. But that can do them a disservice in the long run, parents and mental health experts say. The children are going to get the news somewhere, and controlling their first exposure allows you to make sure they’re getting accurate information in an age-appropriate way.
Talking to children about violent events like this one, especially ones that feel close to home, is also important to their social and emotional development, said Karla Sapp, a mental health counselor in Georgia and mother of two.
“I can’t keep them in this little cocoon and act like the world is not happening around us,” Sapp said. “If I keep them in the cocoon, then they won’t really be able to understand the world in which we live and be able to find their place.”
But first, parents should figure out what’s happening. Before talking to her children Saturday afternoon, Sonia Smith-Kang, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Multiracial Americans of Southern California, read up on what was happening in Charlottesville herself.
Then, Smith-Kang said, she talked to her kids, who are of black, Mexican and Korean descent.
“I was hoping to avoid these kinds of heavy hitting discussions,” said Smith-Kang, who lives in Northridge with her four children and husband. “But … I have to be their advocate, and I have to be someone they can turn to when they’re confused.”
2. Treat children according to their age
While young children will likely hear about what’s happening, they may not be ready to process all the details. It’s important to contextualize these events in the world that a child is living in.
“I liken it to being really mindful of not handing too heavy a suitcase to someone to carry,” said parenting coach Wendy Silvers, who lives in Culver City and has a 16-year-old daughter.
When her daughter was younger, between 5 and 7, “I would say things to her like, ‘There are some people that are very disconnected from love … and they take actions that really hurt other people,’ ” Silvers said.
Now her daughter is older but, as a multiracial young black woman, needs reassurance that she will be safe, Silvers said.
“We talk about everything. We talk about the tensions, we talk about what it’s like for people to live in ignorance, and that we want to be part of the paradigm that brings unity,” she said. Silvers and her husband also tell their daughter sometimes that they, too, are scared, but that they will always do everything in their power to keep her safe.
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