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How to talk to your kids about the violence in Charlottesville

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.

How to talk to children of different ages

Elementary school age

  • Relate the issue to their world — make sure they know who they can go to if they ever feel unsafe.
  • Tell them that if they see people being picked on at school, to always tell an adult, and to treat others with respect.
  • Use age-appropriate language.

Teenagers

  • Watch/read the news with them, then ask how they feel and what they think.
  • Share your experiences.
  • Help them discover what actions they can take to educate themselves and effect change.
  • Remind them that you’re there, even if they don’t want to talk.

Sapp, the mental health counselor from Georgia, talked about the issue differently with each of her two children. She is black and has always talked to them about the dangers they face as black children in America, while trying to balance a sense of optimism. The conversations Saturday built on that base.

With her 10-year-old son, “we talked about how people have differences and how those differences sometimes create division and what can he do” to always treat people with respect, Sapp said.

Meanwhile, Her 15-year-old daughter, Sapp said, understands Saturday’s events from a more political perspective and said hatred seems to be more visible under the Trump presidency. With her daughter, Sapp focused on leadership — how “people will take things they hear and make it fit their ideology” and “what does leadership consist of, how can she protect herself,” Sapp said.

3. Turn the TV off

If children (and adults) see violent images repeatedly, they can experience secondary trauma, Sapp said. She was flipping through channels with her son Saturday morning when they saw the news of the violence beginning in Charlottesville. Sapp called her daughter into the room as well, and talked to them about what was happening.

But after that conversation, she turned the TV off and kept up with the news on her phone. When friends called to talk about it, she went to a different room and closed the door, she said.

Too much exposure “takes away from their childhood,” Sapp said.

She also suggests having the conversations about what’s happening away from the TV and violent images, and in an environment where the children are doing an activity they enjoy or are most comfortable. For example, “if we’re playing basketball or we’re watching … their favorite cartoon or we’re sitting down eating dinner,” Sapp said, she might have these talks.

4. Ask them questions, and answer theirs

For older children especially, it’s important for adults to let them take in the information and have a reaction, said Jonathan Vickburg, a therapist who counsels L.A. students through the Cedars-Sinai Psychological Trauma Center.

“We want to allow them to have their own reactions. That’s the key,” Vickburg said. “Because we can then ask them what they think.”

Before sharing their own reactions, parents should ask kids what they think is happening, and how it makes them feel, he said. That way they can fill in any knowledge gaps and address the feelings their children are having, without undue influence.

5. Show them they have agency in the world

“They want to feel like they are part of the change,” Smith-Kang said of her younger two children, who are 9 and 11. That can mean a march, or a prayer of hope, or a family trip to a multicultural picnic where they can share their experiences and learn about others.

“I’m trying to empower them to get to the next step instead of leaving them in such a place that can seem like...helplessness,” Smith-Kang said.

After talking through the news with older children, there’s an opportunity to help them understand how to be engaged citizens, Vickburg said. That can mean contacting lawmakers together, or joining organizations at school or in the community, he said.

6. Take a historical view

“I didn’t think today was going to be a day of ... history lessons, but it was,” Smith-Kang said. When she asked her younger kids early Saturday afternoon what they had heard, a photo of white men with angry expressions, holding torches, was circulating. So she talked to them about why the rally was happening — she explained who Robert E. Lee was, what the Confederacy was and why people were fighting about it.

Smith-Kang is of black and Mexican heritage, and her husband is Korean American. Her kids, she said, need to understand the generational history of oppression in order to properly cope with it in the present.

“This has been ongoing for hundreds of years so it’s important to teach our history,” Smith-Kang said. “The racists have come out and feel a little bit more sense of freedom and feel more comfortable to talk about those things … but it’s not new.”

7. Avoid “We don’t see color”

This is a trap that parents, often white parents, sometimes fall into, Smith-Kang said. Instead, all parents should explain to their children that people are often treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, but that it is wrong to treat someone differently because of how they look.

“I sincerely hope that white parents are having that conversation,” said Silvers, who is the white mother of a multiracial, partially black 16-year-old. It’s as important for white parents to have these conversations as black and brown ones, so that children are aware of the privilege they have and the responsibilities they have to respect and protect others, she said.

It’s also important to teach children of all races not to be bystanders to bullying and racism, Vickburg said. For younger children, that can be as simple as reminding them to alert an adult if they see someone being mistreated, and never to mistreat someone themselves.

8. Teach them where to get the news

This is one reason it’s important to talk about the news with children instead of avoiding the topic. Any child with access to social media or a classroom full of kids is going to hear about what happened this weekend. And much of that information may be wrong.

“If I’m seeing it on social media, they probably are as well,” said Smith-Kang.

It’s better for parents to be the one controlling the flow of information at first, Vickburg said.

Smith-Kang teaches her kids to be analytical of the news they consume and the language that’s being used. Sapp teaches her children to find five different sources when they’re trying to find out what happens, because every one will have different perspectives.

9. Take a break and give them some love

When Smith-Kang has conversations like these with her children today, she follows it up with a hug, or an activity they enjoy. She reminds her older children, 18 and 25, that she’s there if they want to talk about what’s happening, and on Sunday the family will spend the day together at a picnic.

Sapp, meanwhile, said Saturday night that when she talked to her kids, no one had died yet in the violence. She knows the kids will hear about it, and plans to talk to them about the deaths Sunday. But for Saturday night, she needed to give them — and herself — a rest.

“I was kind of in a place that — ‘This is really happening in our world right now, what is happening in our world,’ ” —Sapp said. “Just as a person, I need to be able to process it so I can have that conversation.”

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