This is just a tough piece to write. It always would’ve been, but seems even more so now after seeing the tear-filled, emotional pleas of a 9 year-old little girl who is saying, (apparently to an audience of mostly white members of the Charlotte City Council), that “we have rights too.” For even the most stoic of us, witnessing this broke us down.
Charlotte resident Zianna Oliphant is obviously quite moved, quite affected, and quite possibly even traumatized by the events that she has experienced. Her city in turmoil, she feels the anger, rage and fear of those adults around her. And so I am reminded, as should we all, that in the midst of all of this chaos are our children — and they too are affected. Children take their cues from we adults, and many of us are not coping well with this spate of police violence enacted on our Black men and women. We are angry, saddened, anxious, worried — all normal emotions given this rather abnormal situation. Quite frankly, many of us adults are having a hard time trying to make sense of it all; to understand the utter paradox of being Black in America and feeling like you have a target on your back during the Presidency of the first-ever African American elected to the highest office in the land. The irony of witnessing history having been made in that way, while simultaneously witnessing the emergence of racial hatred and disrespect in a way that is reminiscent of the Jim Crow days of old. So if its true that children take their cues from us, the question remains, what about them? What about our children?
- You must begin the conversation: The first thing to know is that there must be some type of conversation with your children. These events cannot go left unprocessed. And this is a teachable moment. The ‘how to begin’ and ‘what to say’ will be determined by a few key factors: first, where you as the parent or caregiver are emotionally given these events. Gauge your own emotional state and coping. It might not be quite the right time to engage your child in a conversation about the police-on-Black violence in our communities. Wait until you can talk calmly and rationally. Second, it will depend on your child’s or children’s ages and developmental maturation. It will also depend on how they are taking the events; how much exposure they have had to the media and to these stories, and what their response has been. Has there been behavioral acting out that heretofore did not exist? Bedwetting, suddenly feeling ill or sick with no apparent cause, wanting to miss school or not wanting to go outside, nightmares, acting fearful, anger or irritability. All of these behaviors, and others, might be a hint that your child is having some difficulty understanding these events, and might need some assistance.
- Children take their cues from us: Like coping with any negative event in a child’s life, such as the death of a loved one, how they understand and cope is largely a learned phenomenon. Children learn by watching and modeling what they see in their environment. So, how are the adults dealing with this? What are they saying and doing? Is there anger, rage, fear or uncertainty? I’m not making any value judgments about any of those reactions — again, they are all very normal and indeed, expected given the gravity of this situation. My point here is only to illustrate that children will ‘be what they see,’ and they will ‘do what they view.’
- Children need reassurance: When the adults are mucked up, uncertain, and can offer no assurance that things will be okay, the children are left in a place of great anxiety. Children need only a few things, but during times of chaos one of the really important things is a sense of stability and a sense that things will be okay. To this end, we adults must consistently deliver this message, both in word and behavior, to our children. We must not try to sugar coat of hide the truth of what is happening. The message can be that yes, this is a difficult situation, but we have faced difficult situations before and like then, we will get through this tough time and emerge better from it.
- Dealing with police: What Now? So what say we then, to our children about this apparent paradox? Again, this is very age and very gender dependent. The conversation with a 10 year-old girl will be vastly different than that with a 13 year-old African American male. For starters, we’ve always taught our children to enlist the help of a police officer, and in fact to seek one out in times of trouble. That they shouldn’t trust a stranger no matter how nice he or she seems, but that they can always trust an officer in uniform. Because this paradox (of the heroes hurting the people they are supposed to protect and save), is so illogical and nonsensical that we must help navigate their minds and behavior.
- For ALL children, but especially younger ones, the message must be consistent from both parents/caregivers. Next, the message must deliver reassurance — remember that this is what children need above all else, to feel safe in this situation. Third, the message should deliver hope and optimism. And last, rely on the teachings you’ve instilled in your children to date. Perhaps a message combining all of these points sounds like this: “I’ve always taught you that there are good people and bad people in the world, but many many more good people. The same is true for police. There are good ones, and bad ones. But so many more good ones. They are not all bad.” For younger children, (and depending on their level of maturity), this should be just a part of the message. We absolutely cannot instill a sense of fear, and distrust in our children. But we must be realistic and honest. And the truth of the matter is, not all police are bad.
- Dealing with the police as an African-American male teen: After much thought and counsel with those who are parents of young Black males, I’ve come to this: the goal for our child is to get home, and to get home alive and unscathed. If one is stopped or pulled over, even if it seems that there is no justifiable cause, now is not the time to assert one’s disdain for police or to behave disrespectfully towards authority. The goal is to make it home, unscathed. Everything else can be dealt with at an appropriate time in an appropriate manner – legal or civil action. But now is not that time. Unfortunately, unconscious bias and stereotypes criminalizing Black male teens have caused those they interact with to approach them with fear, or at the very least, trepidation. And, police officers are certainly not immune to societal perceptions and their influences. The point is simply this: there is a time and a place for everything. The time to jump big and bad and mouth off is not at the point of being questioned by armed police officers.
- Our children can get involved too (And we should encourage it)! All of that nervous energy and angst that many kids might feel can be channeled and used positively. Zianna Oliphant’s impassioned speech is only one example. Other examples have been seen nationwide: children giving bottled water to urban officers during the high heat of the summer — a gesture of good will that goes a long way towards healing damaged community relations. Others have been giving out free hugs to police officers. Encourage junior activism in safe and proactive ways. Perhaps children can use school as a forum to begin conversations with classmates. Hopefully, schools and educational settings can use this, and past lessons from history as a springboard to engaging in discussions about civil unrest and protesting and the positives that can come from it (such as those that spurred the Revolutionary War, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.). If the schools don’t, then certainly caregivers can. Talk to your children about ways they can become involved int he conversation and the movement towards change. Again, this is a huge teaching moment that should be capitalized upon.
So here we are (again). It is indeed sad that these conversations must be had. Even sadder to have to write this article. But it is what it is. How we handle this situation is so very important, and will have long-lasting implications. Let’s handle it well. And if we cannot, let us be responsible and seek help from those who can. If you or someone you know is not coping well with these recent events, or whose children might not be handling this well, please reach out to your pediatricians for mental health referrals, to your insurance company’s website for local mental health providers, to your church, or your state psychological association for further resources.
The Good Dr. Nik
Dr. Nik is a clinical psychologist, Life-ologist, author, and speaker practicing in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Follow her @theGoodDrNik on Twitter and @theGoodDrNik on Facebook, and read more of her articles at http://www.Harvestmagazine.net
Featured picture reprinted from Washington Post.