Highly Sensitive Refuge
How to answer your children’s tough questions about race

How to Answer Your Children’s Tough Questions About Race as an HSP

“Mommy, why do you get so nervous when Daddy gets pulled over by the police?”

Being a parent means answering questions all day, every day. All the questions, all the time. When my daughters were little: Mommy, where do babies come from? Mommy, back in your day, did they have multiple TV channels? Now that they’re ages 13 and 20, the questions no longer live in the land of cute and funny. As a mother of brown girls, here’s my reality: my daughters’ questions are less about what it’s like when you grow up, and more about whether they will survive to grow up at all:

Mommy, why do you get so nervous when Daddy gets pulled over by the police?

There is nothing about my daughters that I find threatening. I don’t worry about them committing violent crimes. I don’t worry about them hurting other people. When I look at my babies, I see women who may surely get into trouble, but it will be “good trouble,” to quote the late Rep. John Lewis. I see two people who are destined to have a positive impact on the world.

Unfortunately, America doesn’t always see my babies in the same way. When these two young women come to me — their highly sensitive parent — with questions about race, systemic racism, inequality, and social injustice, I often fall short. Or at least I feel like I do. You see, like most mothers, when my children hurt, I hurt. But as a highly sensitive woman, that hurt cuts a little deeper.

If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you already know that we tend to feel things deeply; very deeply. We also have a knack for absorbing others’ emotions as though they’re our own, which is exactly what I do when it comes to my daughters.

Being a highly sensitive Black woman is a journey in and of itself. Being a highly sensitive Black woman who is also a mother? Welcome aboard the ride! In my efforts to answer their tough questions, I reopen wounds of my own. I choose to get on the proverbial hamster wheel knowing full well how the ride ends — with me feeling mentally and emotionally flooded, utterly exhausted, and in dire need of solitary quiet time to recharge. 

Just in time for the next round of questions.

It can be tough helping my kids muck through this world that they love, but that the nightly news regularly causes them to believe doesn’t love them back. There is no handbook that tells you how to go about answering tough questions dealing with racial issues. But through trial and error, I’ve found a few tools that work for me.

4 Tips On How to Answer Your Children’s Tough Questions Dealing With Racial Issues

1. Answer questions age-appropriately, but honestly — even if it stings.

My girls and I have an understanding: Honesty always. If I ask them a question, I expect an honest answer, even if it stings a bit. Likewise, if they ask me a question, they should be able to receive an honest, though age-appropriate, answer back. 

When my 20-year-old asks a question, I try to meet her where she’s at emotionally, so as not to force her to confront issues that she may not be ready for. I use a 13-year-old measuring stick, on the other hand, when discussing issues with my youngest daughter. 

I place emphasis on the fact that no question is more or less important than another. Plus, you know how HSPs tend to be introspective; it’s one of our many strengths. If there is uncertainty, there is room for growth. And in our home, growth is encouraged. I view answering questions as an opportunity on many levels:  

  • An opportunity to give my children an answer that hasn’t been clouded by the opinions of the world. I know how receiving false information (and then finding out the truth of it later) can cut sensitive me to the core, so I am unwilling to place my kids in that situation. 
  • An opportunity to further bond. There is something to be said about knowing you can rely on your people, and our honest discussions continue to develop trust and grow our relationship.  
  • An opportunity to be a living demonstration of positive possibilities, even after discussing some of the more negative options. No matter what is going on in the world out there, in the space that we are cultivating, I have a window of time to offer peace, comfort, acceptance, understanding, hope, and empowerment. 

2. Look at “the talk” as an ongoing conversation.

In most brown and Black households, I think there is a point in time that “the talk” takes place. While in the past, “the talk” was a rite of passage of Black and brown boys, it has become increasingly necessary to have “the talk” with brown and Black girls. 

“The talk” is a laundry list of information to help our children not be viewed as threats, unjustly accused of crimes, or coined as troublemakers. A few examples of what “the talk” covers: what to do when/if you’re pulled over by the police, how to carry yourself in public places, and how to answer questions from “authority figures” so you don’t seem argumentative or confrontational. 

“The talk” is not bulletproof and does not guarantee the safety or well-being of my children, but it is one of the only instruments I have to equip them with basic survival skills to help them make it home at the end of the night. 

Because times change, in our home, “the talk” isn’t a one-time thing. It is better described as “the conversation.” We are committed to having ongoing dialogue so that as questions arise, my daughters are comfortable asking them. 

  • When they want to ask how a man can go for a jog and be shot, it is discussed.  
  • When they want to ask how a police officer can burst into your home unannounced and kill you as you sleep in your bed, it is discussed. 
  • When they want to understand how a man could lay on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while saying “I can’t breathe,” — or how Black protesters are treated differently than white protesters — it is discussed. 

We keep talking, and we will talk until there is nothing left to discuss.

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3. Normalize their feelings and offer a sense of control.

As an HSP who has personal experience with anxiety, I’ve learned that the situations I operate best in are those in which I feel I have some semblance of control. It took many years to learn that, while I cannot control others, I can focus on controlling my responses to my environments, on identifying my triggers, and on making a personal plan to move forward. I’ve tried to save my girls some of the agony I’ve experienced and pass on that understanding so that they are emotionally equipped from a young age to handle difficult situations.  

My goal is to validate their feelings and foster a feeling of agency. I strive to allow them the space to feel what they feel, and when they are unsure about what they’re feeling, I hold space for them until they figure it out. Instead of taking on the role of “fixer,” I allow them to tell me what they need from me, so that they can feel in control of themselves. 

My oldest daughter plays collegiate soccer, and this season she decided to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Black men and women who have been — and continue to be — affected by police brutality. As we talked through her decision, she felt anxiety wondering how she would be perceived by her coaches and teammates. She did not want to be labeled as “un-American” or as a troublemaker, yet she wanted to use her platform. 

More than anything, I wanted to tell her what to do: to fix it. Instead, I emphasized how normal it was for her to not know what to do. We talked about her fears, her motivations, and her goal in kneeling. By allowing herself to stay present and to feel her feelings, she was able to stay true to herself. And while the decision may have been unpopular among some, she was secure enough in her feelings and in her decision to stand by it.  

4. Partner up to target solutions, not just problems.

Something I’ve learned as a parent, especially as a highly sensitive parent, is that we can discuss problems for hours on end, but until we discuss solutions, we remain stagnant. And as any HSP probably knows, stagnancy is a house we cannot stand to live in. Still, I always make sure my girls understand that discussing solutions does not mean we are going to be able to fix a problem completely. It does mean, however, that we use what we have to try to effect change.  

I’m clear with my daughters that they cannot end racism by themselves. I encourage them to use their resources — their minds, their time, their individual platforms — to educate themselves and those they encounter about the racism that still exists. Rather than sit by and wait for the change, they can actively choose to BE the change. As their HSP mother, I feel compelled to not just support them, but to get in the trenches with them and DO. THE. WORK. My girls and I have protested together, we’ve read together, we’ve posted social media messages together, we’ve talked to friends — both white and non-white — about the state of our nation. All together.

We will continue to put in the time. 

We will continue to get in “good trouble.” 

And always, always, we will continue to be open to hard conversations and tackle all the questions, all the time. 

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