At Boys & Girls Clubs of America, we know the future of our nation rests in the hands of our young kids and teens. Young people, especially young people of color, need trusted voices who will stand against racism and discrimination and for their safety and dignity. They also need to be heard.
Alongside Boys & Girls Clubs’ trained youth development professionals, youth advocates, educators and parents are critical for opening dialogue with teens that addresses racism, especially during times of heightened social division.
According to an upcoming publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics, racism and discrimination are “adverse childhood experiences” that undermine development and well-being. Experiences of racism can influence self-esteem, deviant behavior, classroom behavior regulation and perceived discrimination. Courageous conversations that recognize and acknowledge injustices are one way to help teens counter negative physical, emotional and social effects, according to the report.
How can you create safe spaces that foster conversation about racism? Before leading teens in discussion, adults should seek a deep understanding of the challenges and spend time in self-reflection to explore how they have been affected by racism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following practices for supporting youth that integrate trauma-sensitive care, health equity and positive youth development.
- Teach children about race and ethnicity. Self-identity is a key developmental aspect of adolescence. When families talk about and celebrate their heritage and culture, prepare their teens to succeed in a racialized world, and emphasize diversity and inclusion, youth tend to experience increased self-esteem and academic performance while decreasing behavioral problems and depressive symptoms.
- Start open-ended dialogue. Refrain from making assumptions about negative experiences and imposing your own worldview. Instead, focus on strengths, coping and resilience. When possible, include people who have shared experiences with the teens as well as allies.
- Get to know youth, their identities and their experiences. Ask genuine questions that demonstrate you care. Questions about identity and experiences of racism may be broad or more direct but should allow youth to describe what’s important to them.
- Validate their feelings and responses to racism. Allow teens to name the situation or issue. You may respond by saying, “I appreciate you sharing how that felt for you. It hurts. I find it difficult to even hear about it, let alone experience it.”
- Allow them to cope. Be present to teens and assess whether their coping strategies are effective. Some questions you could ask include, “How did you think or feel while this was happening or watching? How do you deal with these thoughts and feelings?” and “What has helped you deal with the experiences and stay above the negativity?” You can also share your experiences and how you coped with them.
- Heal through creative self-expression. Telling one’s story can be a powerful healing mechanism. Teens can record videos telling about their experience, create an illustration, comic or storyboard of the encounter, take selfies that convey their thoughts and feelings, or perform spoken word or song.
- Form communities. Affinity groups and positive relationships are important for youth to affirm their identity and turn to for support. Ask youth if they would like to connect with a community and then help make it happen.
- Minimize self-blame. Help youth reflect on their feelings so they avoid doubting or questioning their value and self-worth. To help affirm their value, strength and potential, you could say, “You know how we speak to ourselves. We speak to ourselves in ways that lift ourselves up or put ourselves down. Reflect on the ways you speak to yourself. It is important that you stay alert and be watchful of the ways you speak to yourself. My wish for you is that you make your own truth by embracing yourself and loving the unique strengths that you have.”
- Help youth be advocates. The greatest mechanism for healing is allowing youth to see themselves as cocreators of a better system. Encourage youth to focus on their hopes and dreams, get involved and act. You could suggest that they create change by educating others, advocating for legislation, demonstrating, raising money, engaging in community service and getting the press involved.
Authors of the report concluded with a call to action for youth advocates: “We belong to each other. Together, regardless of race and beyond race, we must want what is right for each other, aspire for better, and work for greater if we are to leave the generations of youth that will come after us a just and equitable society—all while caring for each other.”
Reaching Teens, 2nd Edition: Strength-Based, Trauma-Sensitive, Resilience-Building Communication Strategies Rooted in Positive Youth Development will be released by the American Academy of Pediatrics on June 15. Boys & Girls Clubs of America contributed to several chapters of the publication.
Learn more about the practices recommended above in a select chapter from Reaching Teens.