How to Have Conversations About Race at Home

The first learning experiences begin at home, especially when it comes to race. Cultivating racial and cultural pride through conversations with our teens at home is important but not always easy. I spoke with Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences on scholarly leave as Assistant Professor in the Health Behavior and Health Education Department at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Together we discussed how feeling connected to your ethnic group can help teens become their own best advocates at school and in their communities. Here are five strategies for having conversations with your teens about race at home. 

Understand Teen Identity Development

Exploring the question, Who am I?can be one of the most exciting features of adolescence, but identity development for teens of color can also be anxiety-producing. Teens are figuring out their identity while trying to understand how they fit into their ethnic group. While experiences vary significantly across individual teens, some general trends exist in how young people develop their racial identities.

Teens aged 11-14 (early adolescence) may become more sensitive to experiences where race is made an issue. Specific encounters, like a comment by a peer or a post on social media, may prompt them to think more about their race. Teens in middle adolescence (ages 14-18) are typically aware of positive and negative stereotypes associated with their racial group. This awareness can make them more vulnerable to “stereotype threat,” when concerns about living up (or down) to group stereotypes may interfere with performance, like on a test at school. In late adolescence (ages 18-24), young adults become more confident in what their race means to them. They may actively seek opportunities to interact with people from racial backgrounds different from their own.

Understanding these developmental differences goes a long way in knowing what questions your teens may have at different ages and stages and how best to help them navigate these topics when they arise in your home.

Have the tough conversations inside your home because they’re even tougher outside.

Make Space

To ensure young people have a healthy sense of who they are, Dr. Anderson recommends making space at home. Making space means dedicating time to having conversations to ensure that young people have a healthy sense of who they are by saying, “What’s going on? Let’s unpack it. Let’s get it off our chest.”

Making space could be dedicating time at the dinner table, planning a sit down to debrief about the week’s events during a specific day and time each week, or simply being available to your teen to talk when things come up. By making space, we provide space for teens to talk about what’s on their minds, so these things don’t become a burden at school or in other aspects of their lives. Have the tough conversations inside your home because they’re even tougher outside.

Let Your Teen Guide the Conversation

When making space, let your teen guide the conversation and be the expert. You know them well, but they know themselves better, so sit back and listen. Listening allows you to figure out what they’re curious about and what their essential question really is. Sometimes our parent brain will go in one direction when our kids have a simple, straightforward question that’s developmentally appropriate for them. Letting them guide the conversation allows the focus of the talk to be about them and their concerns. 

Encourage Vulnerability

While making space and listening, there are times when it’s important to share your experiences, so teens know they’re not alone. By sharing something hard, Dr. Anderson says this helps them identify and relate to us better. It’s ok to let them know we’re human too but keep the focus on them.

Know How Discrimination Can Affect Teens at School

If a teen struggles with race as part of their identity development, it can certainly affect their mental health and performance in school, sports, and other extracurriculars. Teachers often see students becoming more fatigued, withdrawn, and may notice a dip in academic performance. As parents and caregivers, it’s important to be mindful of the many things that affect our kids and the impact on their mental well-being. Helping them manage their mental load is a way we can support teens in school.

Communicate with your teen’s teacher or administrators to advocate for safe spaces where students can talk about issues affecting them. Dr. Anderson believes it’s vital for schools to provide opportunities for students to unpack issues through dialogue circles that occur at consistent times. Ask your teen which staff member they trust to talk to at school. Encourage them to drop in or write that person a note to get things off their chest.

At the same time, realize some teens are shy about talking about their race and identity while others are very confident. Parents and caregivers should advocate for a multi-method approach to allow introverts and extroverts and everyone in between to communicate in ways that are comfortable to them.

This article was written by Leticia Barr, education consultant and founder of Tech Savvy Mama. The quotes and insights included here were excerpted from a previous Facebook Live conversation with Barr and Anderson.

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CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

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