Psychologist On Talking To Children About Race, Police, And Witnessing Traumatic Events

CBS2 spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist who says the dialogue should always be ongoing.

Video Transcript

JEFFREY GARDERE: My name is Dr. Jeffrey Gardere. I'm a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and an Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: Perfect. OK, so once again parents are faced with having this horrible conversation with their kids about a child, a teenager, who was shot by police. A lot of uncomfortable circumstances surrounding this event. But just from the ground up, what is that conversation?

JEFFREY GARDERE: The conversation is certainly going to be a very difficult one. And it needs to be more than one conversation. It needs to be a series of talks finding out what it is that your child or youngster may feel about this particular situation, answering whatever questions they have, trying not to lecture, being as positive as one can be about talking about the realities of race in America and issues sometimes with police brutality.

And it's certainly about not just talking about how to de-escalate a situation, especially if you are a youngster of color, but overall behavior in America in trying to avoid being singled out or being a victim of racism. This is something that is a full-time job for a person of color, how to in any way possible not be at risk for being targeted sometimes in violent ways, and sometimes with regard to implicit, or even explicit, bias.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: Is it possible to teach our children not to be afraid of police in light of what's been happening of late as well? I mean, whether you shield them from the news or not, it's almost impossible to escape. And is it possible to teach young people that police can be our ally, our friend, our protector?

JEFFREY GARDERE: I think it's really important that we not teach our children to fear police because that can have some dire circumstances where if they are approached by a police officer, they are so afraid that they may run away or they may not be viewed as cooperating even though they are cooperating. Their actions, out of fear that they are experiencing, may be misinterpreted as some other kind of behavior. Looking too anxious, looking too fidgety that can actually cost a person their life.

We saw that happened with the military individual in Virginia, who was afraid to actually move his hands out from outside the car window to take off a seatbelt. And we saw the consequences-- the horrific consequences-- of that particular situation. I think what we need to do is to teach our kids how to respect authority, how to respect police officers, but yet at the same time, be able to discern whether there is a police officer who may not be acting properly. But also, how to utilize and how to count on a police officer to offer guidance or to offer protection.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: So you mentioned that it is more than one conversation. Obviously, it needs to be an ongoing dialogue. But when do you tackle that. Is there an age appropriate or event appropriate time? And is this the event appropriate time-- again, with the 13-year-old being shot-- is this the event appropriate time to start that dialogue?

JEFFREY GARDERE: I believe it's whether with the 13-year-old who was shot, whether it was the killing of George Floyd, whether it was a number of instances of situations gone horribly wrong with regard to police encounters, that we should be talking to our children-- especially our children of color-- as to how to just de-escalate a situation or try not to be at risk of a situation of where they're being targeted because of the color of their skin or the type of neighborhood that they're living in. And as I said, it's not just one talk but a series of talks. And the talks are not just about strategies with regard as to how to behave and not being seen as suspicious, but most importantly, what we as parents, what I do with my own Black children, it's about modeling behaviors for them, showing them in my words.

Let me do that again. 3, 2, 1. It's not just about telling them in words, but showing them in my behavior how to be able to navigate through this world, keeping your full pride, keeping your full rights and resources, but doing it in a smart way for someone who may be racist or someone who may be afraid and who is carrying a gun and a badge, or someone who may have some other kind of issue, to not become a victim of that in our society.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: You know even when these dialogues may have started with families, I think there's no escaping video and news. You know, younger and younger kids have phones, they see stuff streaming, there's conversations, they're back at school now to talk amongst themselves. As I said before, it's just creating this air of despondency, like what is our future? When are they going to stop? You know, is there ever an end point to this?

So what do we need to look for in our kids to even know how to gauge this conversation? What kind of reactions should we expect from them even before this dialogue begins or continues?

JEFFREY GARDERE: Certainly, if we see our kids are being exposed to this kind of news and they're actively seeking out the information as to what's going on and what's happening in their communities and what's happening to kids who look just like them, or having the conversations with other kids. It's not just Black children talking to Black children, but children talking amongst themselves as to what's going on. We have a very woke society, a very multicultural society who are deploring what's going on with regard to these negative police encounters.

So as soon as we see that they are curious about it, that they're discussing it, that they want to know more-- perhaps there is anxiety on their part, perhaps there's fear on their part, perhaps they may be saying certain things that leads us to believe that they may want to avoid any kind of situation with a police officer at any point in their lives-- that's the time to begin talking with them and giving them information that they need in order to be able to navigate through these types of situations. But also gauging what it is that their emotions are, especially if we're talking around emotions of fear and anger, because those are not healthy emotions for them to have.

We want them to feel inclusive. We want them to feel that they are equal citizens. And if they're already experiencing that, and as we see, many children of color already feel disaffected, feel that they are not part of the American mainstream, they are beginning to perceive that they are less than or actually even buying into it because of this constant systemic and sometimes outward racism, that's our time to step in and make that intervention-- constant interventions-- as to helping them be able to realize who they are, help them with their dignity, help them with their self-esteem, and help them as far as social IQ as to how to try to avoid these types of situations where they may be victim to some sort of violence.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: Some of that was really heart wrenching and sad to hear. I mean, but with George Floyd and this trial that's playing out now-- the video is so incredibly graphic. This 13-year-old-- the video is so incredibly graphic.

That army personnel that you mentioned, we see him being pepper sprayed. Again, so very graphic. How blunt do we have to be with our kids to make them understand, a, that they're safe or this doesn't happen to everybody, but also, b, to your point of what society is and how we might be forced to behave. So what is the element of truth we need to put out there for them?

JEFFREY GARDERE: The element of truth that we need to put out to our children is that racism is very real in America. We are experiencing a time of a rise of white supremacy, that there are many, many dangers out there. Racism is not an individual issue. Oh, there are some racist people and some who are not.

It's about a structural racism that's been built in to our country and keeps a certain kind of social order. That's the way it's worked. And racism has morphed because of that. And we're seeing it as part of more institutional racism.

And our children of color must understand this in order to be successful. It's not just about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it's also about history, and it's also about understanding what are some of the implicit and explicit biases that are out there. And that they need to prepare themselves. But it's not just the education of Black and Brown children, but the education of all children talking about a white privilege, talking about institutional racism, because it affects all of us. And we all must come together multiculturally, different races, to be able to work together to make this a more just nation so there will be equal opportunity for everyone.

And that's what the health and wealth of this nation truly is about. We just have not had these conversations. We've been sweeping them under the rug. It's not about shaming anyone. It's about dealing with the reality.

And if we don't deal with this reality of racism, then we will continue to see these horrific situations that are happening in the news and happening to individuals, and Black and Brown individuals, and others because we are not looking at the fact that there are more forces that are in play that in many ways influence and negatively influence perceptions of individuals. This isn't just about police departments and blaming police departments.

It's about looking at our own culture, looking at America, looking at our society. The police just happen to be an arm of that. I'm not excusing what has happened with police officers and the killings of Black and Brown people and others. What I'm saying is instead of just focusing on changing the police, we also must focus on changing fundamentally society. And that in return will have the trickle down effect, the cascading effect of then changing everything else that is part of our society, including our police departments where they need to get much more training so that they can be part of an intelligent and safer 21st century police force.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: With regard to Adam Toledo and the event there, what do you tell a kid who's scared? I'm scared to be out there. How do we deal with that?

JEFFREY GARDERE: Well, I think the most important thing that we can tell a child, as we have seen with this Adam Toledo case, is that it is OK to be scared. Certainly, as a child, that is a very appropriate emotion given what they have seen with that particular case and many other cases of abuse or potential abuse. But the bottom line is if we feed into our own fears, then that only puts us further at risk for being victims of violence, whether from police or anyone else.

It really is about the empowerment strategies. What are the ways that we can navigate through society in a smarter, more resilient way so that we can be successful.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: Is there an age appropriate time to have this conversation?

JEFFREY GARDERE: The age appropriate time is any time a child is understanding or beginning to want to understand what's going on. That is the age appropriate time to step in. But even with children who may not understand what is happening, now it becomes even more incumbent upon us as parents and as society to teach them much more positive behaviors. And to, in many ways, prepare them for a society where they may be treated as less than or as more than.

But at the end of the day, it really is about teaching them the tenants of equality of love and of respect.

STEPHANIE CASSELL: Some education for parents, too.

JEFFREY GARDERE: It's an education that parents need to understand-- love, respect, being able to accept other people who are different from them because we are modeling those behaviors for children. It's not just about the words. It's not about listening to what we do. But actually watching what we do. Just as important, if not more.