Helping Kids Confront Racism

Father sitting with son on the stairs

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As a Black parent, it can be difficult to teach your children the painful truth about racism. It's common for Black children to experience racism, and for many Black children, it's an experience that happens early and often.

A loss of innocence, the look of confusion in their eyes, and fielding questions about hate-filled practices are heartbreaking as a parent. It’s a subject no one wants to have to teach, but for Black parents, it is inescapable. You love your children too much not to prepare them for the realities of the world.

When discussing racism with your child, there's a fine line between teaching them to be careful and aware of racist acts, while not teaching them to hate others. You try to instill in them the importance of mental and physical safety and awareness, while also teaching pride, positivity, and self-care. It can be a difficult line to walk.

“It is important that your child knows how to respond in these situations," says Felice Martin, MS NCC LPC, NeuroCoach + NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC. "Reassure them that you don’t want them to be paranoid; you just want them to be aware of these challenges and how to respond."

In this article, we’ll talk about how to discuss race with your child at various ages and how to help children navigate and process their feelings if they're the victim of a racist act. These can be tricky situations to navigate, and ahead, we will explore how to walk the fine line between making sure children understand the reality of racism but don’t develop anger, resentment, or even hatred towards other races. Resources will be provided that can help parents navigate this journey and be better equipped to have meaningful conversation about racism with their children.

Help Children Understand Racial Differences Early

When it comes to discussing race with children, research shows that many adults wait until children are almost 5 years old before discussing the topic.

Many adults don’t believe younger children are ready to process the concept of race. The truth is, kids notice that others look different from them at a very young age.

“For toddlers, I recommend acknowledging the differences that they notice between races. It's important to talk about these differences, especially when your children point them out,” explains Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Diego, and child and adolescent psychologist at Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego. “For example, if a child points out that someone has a different skin color, it's helpful to comfortably discuss the different races and skin colors that people have in the world in a positive way." 

Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD

For school-aged children, do talk about stereotypes and why those can be harmful so that you can dispel cultural myths for them.

— Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD

Studies show children as young as 3 months old recognize the difference in the skin color of another person. As kids get older and start to spend time with peers, they may start to see people are treated differently because of their skin color. It’s important to build on the foundation you’ve given your child about race.

“For school-aged children, do talk about stereotypes and why those can be harmful so that you can dispel cultural myths for them," Dr. Williams says. "Children at this age become more complex thinkers and are able to understand how people can be different and yet the same (e.g., we have different skin color but we're both the same on the inside)."

You can also expose children to books and information that show Black people in a positive, uplifting light. “If reading a book with a brown-skinned protagonist, parents can say, ‘Look at his/her skin, it’s beautiful and brown like yours!’ Then parents can ask, 'Can you think of anyone else that has beautiful brown skin like that?’” says Shawnese Gilpin Clark, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and current research fellow in minority health and health disparities at Northwestern University/Lurie Children’s Hospital.

As children move into the middle school years, they become more aware of current events. Racial injustice may become more a part of their everyday lives. They see it on television, view it on social media, or hear about it from other kids at school.

During these preteen years, experts say parents should ask their children if they are experiencing racism, whether it be in school, at sport practice, or in other activities. Continue to keep that dialogue flowing with your child during their high school years.

The Importance of Seeing Color

Deciding to adopt a colorblind approach, as opposed to teaching about racism, can do more harm than good.

“It is problematic to teach children to not see color," says Dr. Williams. "Children are observant and they will notice that this is not true. Children can quite clearly see that people are of different colors and trying to tell them otherwise can backfire and inadvertently cause them to stop asking you about it."

Avoiding the topic can make kids feel shame or scared to discuss it. Keeping open lines of communication is critical.

Processing the Impact of Racism

It’s hard to help a Black child understand why someone may not like them simply because their skin is a different color. When your child experiences racism first-hand, however, it hurts in a different way. It’s critical to help them walk through their feelings surrounding what’s happened.

"From a young age, exposure to racism can create internalized racism in Black children. Mentally and emotionally, this can lead to higher rates of depression in Black children, lower academic performance, and low self-esteem,” says Dr. Clark. 

Studies show that discrimination can impact a child’s physical and mental health. Processing those feelings can make a difference in how a child deals with the aftermath of the experience. A child can work through those feelings with you, a trusted adult, or a therapist.

It's also important to teach your child how to take care of themselves when situations like this occur. You can teach them about deep breathing and spirituality, encourage them to get some exercise, explore options for therapy or counseling, or journaling.

It’s also important to instill positive self-esteem, a strong sense of self-worth, and self-love for who they are, where they come from, and what they look like. Giving children a sense of cultural pride can help counter negativity.

"Racial identity development occurs as young as 3 to 5 years old, since this is often when children start to recognize differences in physical appearance among themselves and others," explains Dr. Clark. "Therefore, parents should start to talk to children of all races about racial identity (and self-identity overall) at this age. It is recommended to start the conversation by using ‘cultural pride reinforcement’," she notes.

Confronting Racism, Not Teaching Hate

When another person says something degrading to you, anger and frustration can be normal feelings. Your child needs your help and guidance to understand how to work through the painful emotions and to keep hatred for another race or group from taking root.

Felice Martin, LPC

Speak with the child about what happened. Give the child a voice... And encourage them not to generalize behaviors based on a specific encounter with someone of another race.

— Felice Martin, LPC

“Speak with the child about what happened. Give the child a voice. Try to help the child work through the conflict. And encourage them not to generalize behaviors based on a specific encounter with someone of another race,” says Martin.

Feeling like what they say matters can make all the difference for a child.

“When discussing these painful experiences, you can validate their emotional responses," says Dr. Williams. "Teaching them to empathize with others and to be able to understand others' perspectives will help them develop a more nuanced and mature understanding of racism."

Resources to Aid in Discussion

Sometimes, it’s hard for parents to know where to start, and how to guide the discussion in a way that is most beneficial for the child. Resources can help.

There are materials available that can help parents teach their children about race and racism. The Center for Racial Justice in Education offers an extensive list of books, articles, and even interviews with expert advice on talking to your children about race and racism.

Healthy Children, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics, gives strategies for helping your children deal with racial bias. Embracerace is another website seeking to provide thoughtful information about dealing with race.

Finding resources to help can be beneficial. Ultimately, what your child learns about dealing with race and racism, starts with you.

“Children mirror what they see. Be aware of what you are saying about yourself. Be aware of how you are treating yourself and others. Be aware of what your child is saying about themselves. The goal is to build internal self-esteem and external appreciation of others,” Martin says.

A Word From Verywell

Children recognize race at a very early age. Don’t shy away from that recognition. Discuss race and racism early with your kids of color. Equip them with tools to deal with racism. At the same time, help them understand that they are beautiful just the way they are, and should take pride in that fact.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Singarajah A, Chanley J, Gutierrez Y, et al. Infant attention to same- and other-race faces. Cognition. 2017;159:76-84. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.11.006

  3. Slopen N, Williams DR. Discrimination, other psychosocial stressors, and self-reported sleep duration and difficultiesSleep. 2014;37(1):147-156. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3326

  4. American Psychological Association: Resilience. Racial Stress and Self Care.

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at