Talking to Your Children About Hate-Based Crime
Adapted from Dr. Marleen Wong, Senior Advisor, North American Centre
for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response
When we think about talking to our children about tragic and disturbing events, we must recognize how important it is for the adults to be clear about their own thoughts and feelings before communicating with children.
Take a moment.
Take a deep breath. Take stock of your own emotions before talking about the tragedy with children. The purpose of your conversation is to understand and to address the child’s concerns. Children and youth need you to be calm and to reassure them that their safety is of greatest importance to you.
Start the conversation.
Talk honestly about the incident. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in children’s minds. Correct misinformation, and limit media exposure as this can be more upsetting. Be factual and provide information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.
Listen to children’s fears, questions and worries, and try to understand what they are thinking and feeling without criticism or judgement.
If they ask, “why did this happen?” they may be wondering “might this happen to us?” A short, honest and reassuring answer is best with younger children, for example: “What happened to these people is wrong in every way. Most people are good, but in this situation a man filled with hate attacked people he did not know but judged them by the colour of their skin. We have laws against hurting or killing people. He has been caught and will be punished and will not be able to do it again.” With older children, talking about the ways we can engage in anti-racist thinking.
Keep communication open.
Let them know they can reach out to you if they are afraid or have a question.
As you speak to them, remember you are teaching children how to face a crisis. Be honest and provide reliable information. If you don’t know, it’s ok to acknowledge that. You can say, “that’s a really good question, let’s think about how we can find the answers.” Don’t overwhelm children with more than they need to know at the time and know that they will be reassured by your honesty. Children can feel secure in a dangerous world if they feel they have a caring adult they can depend on and trust.
Talk with our children about hate-based violence.
Teach students at their grade level about discrimination, racism, anti-racism, and the dangers of extremist thinking on how people both view and treat one another. Define terms and talk about what they mean, including examples of how these things look in schools and communities. With younger children, talk about bullying as an example of what racism looks like. Use the “Unlearn” posters to have conversations about equity and inclusivity in the classroom, school and world.
Expect a variety of reactions.
You may see a wide range of emotional responses depending on the age, stage, maturity, and lived experience of the child. Offer reassurance that feelings are okay, and help children to identify what they need to help them with their thoughts or emotions. Remind them that no matter what they feel or think, reinforce that it is never okay to hurt another person because of our feelings or thoughts.
When children say “I’m scared.”
Pretending that nothing has happened is often no longer an option, and parents/caregivers and teachers will often need to provide support to help children and youth process something that is incomprehensible. Be honest in answering the questions you are asked. Explain that anxiety and worry are normal emotions, and reassure your children or students to let them know they are safe. Frame answers to their questions based on their prior knowledge.
Most people would agree that there should be some limits to children’s exposure to bad news, in terms of language used and details given. Sometimes there is no way for our children to avoid hearing about it or talking about events at school or in the community with peers or other adults. This is the case with an event as serious as a terror attack or a hate crime where people have died. We must think about what we can do to help and support them, instead of avoiding it altogether.
There are no easy answers, but the same principles apply to encouraging children to speak about bullying, child sexual exploitation, inappropriate imagery and most other in-person or online realities. We need to be constantly developing an atmosphere where it is safe to talk about how we can deal with the problems in our lives and in the world in the most positive and constructive way possible.
Focus on what we can control.
In your actions, show that you believe in your child’s courage, strength and resilience. Yes, it is dangerous world, and there are reasons for fear. However, they are not alone, and together you can use the lessons of the past to help your child feel empowered by helping to create a world that is safer, kinder and more loving. Reassure children to know who is there to help them, and the things that are in place at home, school and in the community to keep them safe.
Share your belief that love is stronger than hate.
Share stories of the courage of people you know in your family, in your school, or in your community. There are heroes in everyday life who have stood up to racism and discrimination. Point out ways in which you’ve observed your child speaking out, reaching out or helping others at home, at school, in clubs, or in other activities.
Model kind and sensitive behaviour.
Be a positive role model. Think together about ways you can reach out and make a difference, for example to do a good deed. Talk about ways that we care for one another in our human family. Express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families, and ways we can ensure that we are making things feel safe for everyone in our classroom and school. Talk about bullying, inclusivity, standing up for others, reporting behaviour, and asking for help.