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by Sylvia B. Bodell
| Children, Adolescents, Teens, Parenting, School, Racism, COVID-19, Corona Virus

Parenting During a Pandemic: How to talk to your kids about going back-to-school, COVID-19, racism and current events

We asked two of The Center’s experts how to guide healthy discussions during this confusing time. They are trauma-focused staff therapist Kimberly Pearson, M.Ed, and staff psychologist Dr. Nathaniel Strenger, Director of Clinical Advancement.

Parenting during a pandemic is agonizing. The days have lengthened into months. Add mask wars, riots, racial upheaval, the economy, an isolating summer, and now back-to-school anxiety and confusion.

Children are aware and distressed. While our job as parents and guardians is to reassure our kids, this can be a time to help build empathy in our children, help them understand their emotions behind their behaviors and help educate them about racial equality. We can impact change in our communities and it begins with talking to our kids.

We asked two of The Center’s experts how to guide healthy discussions during this confusing time. They are trauma-focused staff therapist Kimberly Pearson, M.Ed, and staff psychologist Dr. Nathaniel Strenger, Director of Clinical Advancement. Both of these experts were part of The Center's most recent OLOGY program panel, Understanding Racism and Anti-Racism. Click here to watch this informative webinar.

When should we start talking to our children about racism? How do we begin that conversation?

Dr. Nathaniel R. Strenger
While I do not consider myself a one-size-fits-all type psychologist, I do notice some patterns in how I talk with parents about the so-called uncomfortable issues. Sex, race, justice, drugs, and even suicide can be complex and nerve-wracking topics. I often tell parents: Your number one goal, when chatting with your kids about this stuff, is to get them to come and talk to you again. With matter-of-fact comfort, you communicate that it is alright to talk, have questions, and discuss observations openly. It is the cultural anxiety associated with these topics that seeps through our parenting, making them taboo. Show openness, delay judgment, speak empathy, and emit calm.

Start talking (and playing) early. Biases socialize very young, and so you can mind them even as parents of toddlers. You might start simply with race. Attend to the books, toys, and physical surroundings you provide your child. Think twice before purchasing yet another doll of the same skin color. Read books that depict characters of different backgrounds. If you can encourage diversity among these, you already weaken those dichotomies towards which a kid's brain naturally drifts.

Older kids face more sophisticated questions about surrounding circumstances. and a parental response must begin with a unified moral grounding. You, as parents, must clarify your own micro-culture. Go into a conversation with your kids with a consistent message that conveys a sense of security. I favor developmentally appropriate honesty coupled with activities that promote a sense of safety and attachment. You do not have to dance around difficult topics, so long as you give twice the dosage of safety alongside. Perhaps devote a period of time talking about racism or the recent events, and then chase it down with a little extra play time or a special family activity.

Kimberly Pearson, LPC, M.Ed
Children are resilient and although they are not little adults, they are constantly developing their own narrative about current events. As parents, we are responsible for helping them develop a narrative that will ensure they become healthy, productive adults who are encouraged to empathize with others and contribute to a society. When talking to children about current events, listen to their narrative and provide a safe place for them to explore their feelings and thoughts. It is important for children to feel they have some sense of control over their experiences. Children must feel safe and stable in the mist of chaos, and this only occurs when parents feel safe and stable.

Because it is possible and probable for parents to pass their feelings of anxiety to their children, parents must manage their own feelings in a healthy, productive manner. It is equally important for parents to understand Anxiety is about Fear, and Fear is about Control. High levels of anxiety can be managed by identifying the source of fear and utilizing resources to control the fears. Everyone must have some sense of control, even if it is a false sense of control. This sense of control helps us manage the mental chaos and eliminate self-defeating behaviors. In terms of the Pandemic, wearing masks and social distancing gives us a sense of control.

Children ages 3 to 5 began to assert their sense control. While they do not have the vocabulary to articulate their thoughts about social issues, they are influenced by the actions of others and will assert power by imitating what they see. A good way to start conversations about racism during this age is to talk about what children see others do.

It’s important for children ages 5 to 11 to feel they have a sense of accomplishment and engaging them in conversations about fairness, justice and liberty is important for the development of social interest. At this age, most children have seen or experienced bullying between friends or siblings. Parents can help children understand racism by talking about what it means and how it feels to be bullied. Ask your children if they have ever been told by another child they could not play with a toy or play with other children? Racism is similar, as it shares the same message and feelings of rejection and/or denying someone an opportunity. Just as a child who experiences being treated unfairly or bullied on the playground, racism is unfair treatment that deny rights to people of color. Being treated unfairly affect one’s sense of accomplishment, which inevitably will lead to feelings of inferiority.

Children ages 12 to 18 have the vocabulary to articulate thoughts and feelings with a sense of purpose. By this age functioning children have learned to assert their power and have gained a sense of accomplishment. During the adolescent years, children develop their identity, as they explore their own values and principals. This developmental stage calls for parents to help children create a sense of purpose and a moral compass based on social justice. It allows children to talk about their sense of right and wrong and explore ways to create change.

How do you explain the violence that has happened in the past and still happening?

Kimberly Pearson, LPC, M.Ed
Not all violence is a race or social justice issue because hurting people hurt people and there are a lot of hurting people in the world. The violence we experience around racial issues can be explained the same way you explain unfairness on the playground. When children feel mistreated, they will react, and some (not all) will react with violence. Unfortunately, violence has been a part of the Black experience since slavery and a reaction to mistreatment is different than violence resulting from deviant behavior. Understanding this difference not only helps children avoid the false narrative that people of color are dangerous, it also offers them a sense of control over their environment by using social justice as way to eliminate the idea that people of color are a threat. Not all people of color are violent and not all people who are mistreated reacts with violence. Everyone has a responsibility and the resources to treat others fairly and by doing so, we create a safe and secure society where everyone can enjoy the playground.

Dr. Nathaniel R. Strenger
The language you use as parents is informed by the moral culture you try and hold to as a family (e.g., is this "sin" or "injustice?"). Talk with your caregiving team about what it is that you believe and with what kind of understanding you might want to surround your child with.

The violence we see today is often the result of fear. When we encounter those who disagree with us, look different than us or see the world in a different way. When confronted with such difference, we might feel threatened. It’s almost as if the presence of a different outlook on life makes us worry that our own is less valuable. But this simply isn't the case. We can teach our kids to understand themselves and their family, and we can teach them to remain open to others.

Encourage your child to write out the story of a particular event at school. Prompt them to draw pictures and use your own words to reflect back to them what you see. Validate their story! Then, prompt them to write a telling of the same from a different kid's perspective; encourage your child to consider the event from the perspective of a child who is viewed as different or new.

How do you explain the confusion regarding COVID-19 and back-to-school?

Kimberly Pearson, LPC, M.Ed
People typically make choices based on their individual experiences. However, COVID-19 is a public health issue where choices must be made based on shared experiences. Since we all are living under the threat of COVID-19 and all parents of school age children are affected by back-to-school policies, COVID-19 should be treated as a public health problem because of the shared experience. In most cases, social contracts are used to govern shared experiences, and much like children on the playground, everyone must understand and abide by the rules that governs the shared experience. For instance, children learn to take turns on the playground equipment. While one person swings, the other person pushes. The playground rules is where our social contract begins and when children do not adhere to these rules, chaos ensues, and no one can have fun. The confusion regarding COVID-19 has occurred because there is no social contract, and everyone is navigating this shared experience with individual rules.

How do we equip our children to navigate these weighty issues?

Kimberly Pearson, LPC, M.Ed
No man is an island and we all are both physically and biologically connected. As a result, helping children develop a sense of social interest is key to equipping them to navigate these issues. Parents play a key role in helping children develop a moral compass with a social interest agenda by nurturing their own social interest resolution, providing a safe place for children to explore their own sense of power and control over areas where change is needed, and encouraging the development of their child’s identity with a moral compass that is focused on social justice.

How do you know if your child is struggling?

Dr. Nathaniel R. Strenger
I spend a lot of time in my clinical practice helping parents identify the unique ways their children are communicating hurt or fear. Your kids' brain language structures are not yet developed. Consequently, they don't have actual words to describe all those weird body-sensations we adults call "feelings." So instead of verbalize they behave. A kid's nervous system senses unspoken uneasiness or change in a household without the kid even knowing it. That is the input. You parents see the output. Without a fully developed emotional vocabulary, your kid probably expresses their needs behaviorally. Impulsivity, irritability, sleep interruptions, or increased clinginess are all very common in my practice right now. Parents, don't worry, this is pretty normal! Remember these are your child's attempts to express their feelings.

Try empathy first. If you can verbalize even a guesstimate of your child's feelings, you are teaching them the new verbal language of expressing themselves. You are also helping them to understand the emotions behind their behaviors. Next time you want to pull your hair out during the COVID era, take a deep breath and remember your child is trying to express themselves with whatever tools they have. Try and discern what the vulnerability beneath the behaviors might be and then give a little empathy before you dole out consequences.

Kimberly Pearson, LPC, M.Ed
In most cases, children will display their anxiety through their play. Parents should pay attention to what children say and how they play. If children are role playing violent activities or focused on videos and social media influencers with stress provoking messages, it is highly likely the child is being affected and it is time to start the conversation.

About Kimberly Pearson
Kimberly, soon to be Dr. Kimberly Pearson upon completing her PhD in counseling, is a trauma-focused therapist who helps clients of all ages eliminate behaviors that lead to self-defeating or societal-defeating consequences. She applies complementary therapy approaches and techniques to help her clients reestablish their support system, rebuild their lives and uncover their hidden potential. Kimberly's grandparents and parents both had life-long careers in ministry and faith leadership. Kimberly is a sought-after speaker and serves clients at The Center’s Network Offices in Oak Cliff at Cliff Temple Baptist Church and New Covenant Christian Fellowship Church. To schedule an appointment call 214-526-4525.

About Dr. Nathaniel Strenger
Nathaniel R. Strenger, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and the Director of Clinical Advancement at The Center. As such he provides a variety of clinical services, supervises training therapists, and develops continuing education opportunities for clinicians and the broader public alike. As part of his studies and professional background, he has taught, lead workshops, and written on topics ranging from trauma, spirituality across the lifespan and the practice of psychology, emotional regulation in children, teens, and adults, community coordination in care, parenting concerns, and clergy family issues. His area of focus includes ADHD/autism/developmental testing; depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He has worked in outpatient community clinics, private practice, medical centers, and in university counseling. Dr. Strenger is recognized as Dallas Child Magazine “Mom Approved” recipient. To schedule an appointment call 214-526-4525.

The Center provides counseling, testing and assessments for students throughout the school year. We understand the growing anxiety and depression that has been heightened during COVID-19. We're here to support parents, teachers and students. Click here to find a therapist for you.

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