Tips for Having Difficult Conversations About Race With Your Teen

When it comes to talking to your teen about race, discrimination, equality, and fair treatment, everything, from how you broach the conversation, to what you say, to how you say it matters. These are tough conversations indeed, but parents need to be insightful, compassionate, and understanding when navigating them. In our latest Q&A, I spoke with Mia Smith-Bynum, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and Professor of Family Science in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. We discuss some tips to help talk with your teen when the topics are tough, as well as the important role empathy, racial socialization, and self-care play in making these types of conversations most effective.  

Mia Smith-Bynum, Ph.D.

CPTC: What is your theory on the role of racial socialization in action, and what do parents need to know about it?

Mia Smith Bynum: So how do parents ensure they have a healthy, well-adjusted child of Color who can thrive in the United States despite racial biases? Evidence shows that people are often unaware of biases when they’re interacting with children of color, and adults of color. How do we ensure that kids pick up on those messages? I did some research over a 12-year period involving videotaping conversations between Black parents and their teenage kids about ways to cope with various racial dilemmas. My theory, which is the theory of racial socialization in action, outlines how families communicate and build kids up. Parents are the first teacher when it comes to teaching kids about race and culture. So when a teen is faced with a particular racial issue, the parent has to assess their child’s attributes and emotional qualities. Are they sensitive? Anxious? Extroverted? Then they need to figure out the best way to communicate that information and whether their child is ready to learn it.

Teens can extend their learning with the support of a knowledgeable parent, caregiver, or instructor. The parent who has more life experience when it comes to race and racial issues can create the bridge between their child’s current skill of coping and the racial issues they wish to discuss. Also, those parents who are good at taking the perspective of their child usually know their teen’s personality and which strategies work best when it’s time to teach their child about difficult topics or sensitive matters. Parents should also think about the timing in which they deliver it, the tone of voice in which they deliver it, and use age-appropriate language that their teen can take in and process. It comes down to being able to see things from your teen’s point of view, thinking back to when you were that age, and considering how it might have been helpful to you to receive information in a certain way.

CPTC: Do you think when parents use empathy, they can better communicate about race, discrimination, and other heavy topics?

MSB: Empathy is the capacity to take the perspective of others, and it’s key to communicating hard information. Parents who can provide more emotional support have children who are better at solving those problems and more likely to engage. Empathy is also about trying to see the point of view of the folks you’re working with. In the case of your teen, it’s seeing what they’re dealing with, what their school and neighborhood environments are like, or what the challenges are in unique scenarios they’re dealing with as far as the other kids they see day in and day out. That can help you problem-solve with them together.

What I'm suggesting is hard. I don't want to minimize this and say take a breather. These are ongoing stressors happening in the lives of families of color. Sometimes we need a little time to think it through. There's nothing wrong with that.

CPTC: You spoke about parents knowing their child’s nature when having these difficult talks and ensuring their message resonates. Why is it important for parents to consider their teen’s experiences and personality — whether that’s anxious, sensitive, or strong?

MSB: Parents may need to modify how they have those conversations, depending on what the nature of discrimination is. If it’s something minor, perhaps you don’t need to have a one-on-one with an older child. If it’s something that’s dealing with personal safety or something in the news like police brutality or unarmed Black people being shot, you’re probably going to need to think how much to share, and how to shield your kids, regardless of their age. Yet, you should still think about how to build up those coping skills and pause to get a handle on your own emotions. These are painful things for parents as well, you’re not immune to them. And your kids are watching and taking in everything we do and say around it. If they see you cry, or tear up, pause and ask yourself, is now the right time to share what I’m thinking? Maybe you need to wait for a later time when you’re more composed. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes your child seeing that something gets to you emotionally is precisely how they know it is safe and expected to feel that way as well. The key is not to hide your emotions but to show your child how you accept and process them in a way, time, and place that allows you to function best.

What I’m suggesting is hard. I don’t want to minimize this and say take a breather. These are ongoing stressors happening in the lives of families of color. Sometimes we need a little time to think it through. There’s nothing wrong with that.

CPTC: Let’s talk about self-care. How important is it for parents to pause for self-care during these stressful times so they can communicate with their child the best way possible?

MSB: I recommend that while you want to know what’s happening in the news, you don’t have to know every fact and detail or see every visual image. Some days, I tune the news out for my mental health because, in the midst of it, you have to get up and go to work every day, you’ve got to run your household, and take care of your family. And if you are dealing with the trauma of watching the news and watching a barrage of terrible videos on social media day in and day out, it can grind anyone down. Also, as we’re managing this reality, make sure you have regular time throughout the week to do something joyful, fun, or peaceful, and that list will be different for everyone. I know for myself; I like to put on my favorite music streaming service and listen to some favorite tunes while I’m walking my dog every morning – it helps clear my head and sets my mind for the day. Exercise, meditation, and yoga are great for the mind, body, and spirit, and making sure you’re fitting those things in regularly.

For more with Dr. Smith-Bynum, please check out this piece.

About LaShieka Hunter

LaShieka Hunter is a health, parenting, and entertainment writer living on Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Essence; Dr. Oz The Good Life; Men’s Health; and Ebony.

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