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How To Help Black Children Cope Amid Stress Of Racial Protests


This is an exhausting year for people following the news. It's especially so because following the news is not optional. From the pandemic to protests against police, people are living the news. It's hard for parents to keep the news from kids even if they want to. And for black children, the pressures can be overwhelming. NPR's Patti Neighmond asked psychologists what black families can do.

ARIADNE WILLIAMS: My son, his behavior has changed with coronavirus and the protests.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Ariadne Williams' (ph) 6-year-old son had difficulty sleeping. And he's returned to a habit he quit a year ago, sucking his thumb.

WILLIAMS: And he became much more clingy at home to me physically. He's always a very affectionate child and huggy and kissy. But he literally - I cannot, basically, peel him off me.

NEIGHMOND: These are typical behaviors when kids are worried or stressed, says psychologist Erlanger Turner, spokesperson for the American Psychological Association.

ERLANGER TURNER: For toddlers who may have been potty trained, for example, they may begin to have more frequent accidents. As you look at older children that may be school-aged and even teenagers, you may begin to see difficulties with problems with their irritability. They may be more angry, more sad.

NEIGHMOND: He says parents should talk with their children, listen and try to soothe. They can even admit they, too, are worried. But the recent, highly publicized events of brutality against black people, he says, have taken an even bigger toll, especially on black children. Riya Roper-Ned (ph) and her husband have two sons. Noah (ph) is 7, Christopher (ph), 10. They've shared some aspects of these events with their children because there really isn't much of a choice.

RIYA ROPER-NED: It's everywhere. It's on the news. It's on the TV and, if not, my husband and I are speaking about these events.

NEIGHMOND: And a couple of weeks ago after George Floyd was killed by police, her oldest son, Christopher, asked, didn't This happen last week?

ROPER-NED: All I can say to him was the truth. The truth was, yes. It did happen last week and the week before and the week before that. It's very much the same story, a different person. And that hurts. That hurts that what he is hearing from the world are instances of racial prejudice and bias and outright racism.

NEIGHMOND: She fears her son is suffering a loss of hope.

ROPER-NED: There was a day - one day, in particular - in which I was so emotional over what I was seeing on TV and reading that we decided that we needed to go and protest ourselves. We needed to do more than just sit in the sidelines, sit at home.

NEIGHMOND: The family drove to a protest near where they live in suburban Maryland.

ROPER-NED: And on the way there, we are trying to inform them about what is happening, what are we doing and why is it important for them to be a part of this movement. And one of my sons said, well, why are we even doing this? Nothing changes.

NEIGHMOND: She tried to explain that protest is a pathway to change.

ROPER-NED: It's hard to hear a young child at the age of 10 already aware of the history of how racism has been institutionalized, and to already know that the change that is happening, it's so slow, too slow for his understanding to even see it.

NEIGHMOND: This isn't the first time she's had to talk to her sons about racism.

ROPER-NED: I was at a store, Rite Aid. And Christopher, one of my sons, his hands were in his pockets. And, you know, the candy is right there. He didn't have candy in his pocket. But I had to let him know, very clearly, you are never to go to a counter or anywhere and have your hands in a pocket in the stores. There's just a different interpretation of the same action, I believe, because he's a black boy.

NEIGHMOND: Psychologist Turner says these conversations are difficult but essential.

TURNER: You do have to teach your child these ways of behaving to make sure that they are not seen as a threat. I think you can keep it as simple as, you know, unfortunately, people sometimes don't treat everybody the same way. And for us, we have to make sure that we behave in these ways so that they don't make these bad assumptions.

NEIGHMOND: Children may be sad, he says. But ultimately, this understanding can build resilience.

TURNER: If you don't have those conversations, then they may experience these incidents as either a teenager or even an adult and not know how to make sense of that. And so you sort of prepare them. And they don't feel stuck when trying to process why these events are happening.

NEIGHMOND: Like Roper-Ned, Ariadne and Chris Williams (ph) felt a responsibility to protest. And that really worried their 9-year-old daughter, Marley (ph).

WILLIAMS: Marley expressed fear of going, of police. And I was trying to explain, well, we won't go in the night for the curfew. And she said, I saw police pushing people in the day. I don't want to go in the day. We said, we won't take you somewhere like that. She said, you can't be certain of that because I watched it on TV. And I explained to her, you still have to exercise your right to say what you think about things. And you can't be scared and stay in your house.

NEIGHMOND: Williams was working that day. So her husband, Chris, took the children to the protest. They carried signs and chanted. Marley eventually calmed down, felt a sense of purpose and even made up a dance to go along with the chant.

WILLIAMS: They were scared. But when they came home, they were very exuberant. They had a great day. I'm very happy he took them to feel empowered.

NEIGHMOND: Psychologist Maryam Jernigan-Noesi researches racial discrimination and health. She's also the mother of 4-year-old Carter (ph). She says it's not just black families that need to have these difficult conversations.

MARYAM JERNIGAN-NOESI: I'm teaching Carter about the world. And I'm teaching him about himself. But I also have to teach him about keeping him safe in a society that's racist. What are you teaching your children about my child? Are you countering the messages, the negative messages, and stereotypes about, you know, black boys, black girls, you know, or children from other backgrounds?

NEIGHMOND: She suggests white parents don't simply go along with white as the norm, but instead work to teach their children to be citizens of the world, to appreciate and respect all people. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONMA'S "SEQUENCES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.