Advice to help kids navigate issues related to police, racism

Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, on how to have age-appropriate conversations with children about race and police

The outcome of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd has a Northern Virginia psychiatrist offering advice on helping children navigate issues related to civil unrest, racism and police accused of violence.

“These are tough topics,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a Kaiser Permanente child and adolescent psychiatrist who practices in Burke and Falls Church.

“What’s important as a parent when we’re dealing with kids and racism, kids and the police, is to make sure that we are, as parents, very open and not creating our own thoughts and feelings about these things and placing them on our kids,” she said.

Helping children evolve into responsible citizens, Patton-Smith said, means allowing them to have their own understanding of what racism is and how to deal with differences.

“Sometimes they can hear things or see things or hear parts of things, but their understanding may be completely different than your understanding,” Patton-Smith said.

It can be very scary for children who see interactions involving police, or incidents involving police and protesters who become violent. Parents, she said, should remain calm and offer reassurance.

“As much as possible, it’s important for you to reassure your child that you are safe. They are safe. And have an open dialogue with your child about how they’re feeling and how they’re thinking,” Patton-Smith said.

Also, spend time with children while they’re on social media, or while they’re watching or listening to the news.

“So that you can create that ability to have a conversation in real time and really get a sense of what they’re seeing, hearing and being able to comprehend,” said Patton-Smith, who warned not to overdo it.

“Over-consumption for children and adults — of any of the events that are happening or anything that can be very stressful — can increase anxiety, can also increase depression.”

And don’t think of these conversations as one and done.

“They’re topics that need several discussion. They need consistent discussion in order for there to be the appropriate education, understanding and then the ability to embrace different cultures and different races and deal with the dynamics of what’s happening in society today,” Patton-Smith said.

Warning signs your child is struggling may include mood swings, aggression, being argumentative, any changes in sleeping or eating, isolating, not interacting with family or friends or lacking interest in things they used to like.

“Please make sure you are contacting your child’s pediatrician or mental health provider,” she said. “Just make sure that you’re talking early, talking often and taking care of your kids and yourself, especially in these challenging times.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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