How to Explain Microaggressions in Terms Simple Enough for a Child to Understand

Let's settle into our discomfort to learn what microaggressions look and feel like and how we can teach children to recognize and stand up to them.

An image of a mom talking with her daughter.
Photo: Getty Images.

As a Black woman living with multiple sclerosis, married to an Asian man, and raising biracial children, I've been the recipient of countless microaggressions: "You don't look like someone with MS" and "You're so articulate!" I've also had people pet my hair without permission and say, "It feels so soft, just like dog fur."

Like papercuts, the slices of microaggressions may be unintentional but the sting is certainly felt. The victim and bystanders are often left to process, "Did that just happen? Why did that feel so uncomfortable? Should I say something, or will I be told that I'm being overly sensitive or aggressive?" The cuts of microaggression add up overtime, leaving the victim with a fractured sense of character judgement and self-esteem.

What Are Microaggressions?

Houston-based pediatrician Daphnee Jean-Francois, M.D., FAAP, defines microaggressions as, "Subtle, everyday insults that convey a negative message or stereotype in a marginalized group that is targeted specifically because they are part of a particular group."

Dr. Jean-Francois adds, "Microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal, intentional, or unintentional and target individuals based on their race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, immigration status, physical abilities, or stature and religion."

How Do Microaggressions Affect Kids?

Many individuals recall having felt attacked by microaggressions even before they had the ability to express their feelings in words. Author of A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space, Eliza VanCort says, "A child can feel the effects of microaggressions as soon as they are old enough to understand language."

And these microaggressions can sting. "Microaggressions can impact a child's self-esteem, causing them to feel anxious, unsafe, or even post-traumatic effects depending on the severity, length, and intensity of the attack," says Kelly King, Ph.D., LP, ABPP-CN, a pediatric neuropsychologist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. "This can lead to social and educational withdrawal."

How to Combat Microaggressions

Microaggressions can be combated at an early age by helping children observe and embrace different people within their own lives including family members, playgroups, at school, and community members. Here are a few ways parents can do that.

Start the conversation early

Studies show that children can identify differences in race as early as six months of age. But many parents tend to shy away from discussing topics that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar, such as race, disabilities, and gender diversity. This can lead to older children having little to no guidance for understanding and embracing differences of others. Dr. Jean-Francois says parents can start these conversations with their little ones from the age of 2 and continue having them through their tween years.

"I would first let parents know that it's OK to start these conversations because they are so important," says Dr. Jean-Francois. "Parents should meet their child where they are developmentally. For example, if your toddler notices differences in skin tone amongst other kids on the playground, you can acknowledge these differences and say, 'Isn't it great that we are all different?' For school-aged children, talk to them openly about microaggressions and stereotypes."

Experts agree that calm and direct conversations are most effective with young children. Use a welcoming and engaging tone with relatable examples from what they observe in their own world. Refrain from shaming or embarrassing your child for their comments or questions.

"It needs to be an ongoing, developmentally evolving conversation," shares Dr. King. "Do your best to educate yourself on topics in advance. Physically get down to your child's level so you have their full attention, look them in the eye, think a moment before you respond, then give it your best and give yourself grace. It's OK to say, 'I don't know, let's find out together,' and use those moments as learning opportunities for both parent and child."

If your child experiences a microaggression or is a witness to one, get their perspective by asking what they think about the incident and how it makes them feel. This will surely get the conversation going. If your child is the instigator, stay calm and gently, but directly, address the situation. Empathy is key so ask why they said what they said, where they learned it, and how it would make them feel if someone said that to them. Then, encourage them to apologize to the person they hurt.

Welcome all questions

Kids ask great questions, sometimes loudly during sudden silences in public places and in front of the person about whom they are curious. "If you and the other person are comfortable," says Dr. King, "encourage your child to meet them as an individual and allow them to share what they would like the child to know."

My 5-year-old son overheard a woman with a deep voice talking to her child at swim class. After staring at her for an extended period, he shyly whispered to me, "Is she a mommy or a daddy because she looks like a mommy, but she doesn't sound like you." It was a perfect opportunity for me to explain that all mommies don't sound the same, and all people don't look the same. Some people eat foods that we have yet to try (but we can!) or wear beautiful ethnic clothing that look different from ours. These things make us different and unique just like her deeper voice.

During the car ride home, we continued the conversation by talking about all the wonderful things she probably does as a mommy—giving cuddles, playing games, and cheering for her kid at swim class, "just like your mommy."

Bring diversity into your home

"I'm a big advocate of using books to have conversations that parents might not have the words for," says Dr. King. "Antiracist Baby, Pink is For Boys, Under My Hijab, and Yes I Can: A Girl and Her Wheelchair are all great books for families to explore differences."

Families can also learn new languages together, donate toys and clothing to homeless or women's shelters, mentor children with disabilities, and diversify dolls to include different skin colors. Dr. King says the key is to "expose children to situations where they get to know other people that are different than them."

Model the right behavior

There's a caveat addressing microaggressions with children. Michon Benson, Ph.D., assistant professor of African American literature at Texas Southern University reminds parents, "We can't apply too much pressure on children to correct the errors that adults themselves have yet to correct. We must model what we want our children to exhibit." As offensive as microaggressions may be, address them from either side with compassion and the assumption that the offense was unintentional.

Everyone has unconscious biases that define what feels stable, safe, and familiar. However, we must be willing to learn about individuals in their totality, not just the parts that are relatable and comfortable for us to coexist.

As we turn a corner with the pandemic and levels of engagement begin to increase, Dr. Benson says we have a unique opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to society. "It's not a have to, it's a get to. We get to think about the person we want to be when we reacclimate into society. If we use this time wisely, we will have a newfound appreciation for our physical freedom and our engagement with others."

How to Help Kids Deal with Microaggressions

Unfortunately, your kid may be the victim of a microaggression or be witness to one. Here are ways parents can prepare them.

Teach them to redirect

Microaggressions are often delivered in a joking manner and victims are accused of being too sensitive if they respond in a disproving way. Children can be taught to redirect the issue back to the provoker by simply asking, "What did you mean by that?" Then, allow them to answer, however long that may take. "Remember the power of silence," says VanCort, "and let the uncomfortable silence linger."

Role play

My mother taught me this as a child and I still use it as an adult. Teach those little kids to use their big voices and speak up against microaggressions. Role playing is a perfect way to let them find the right way to express, "This is not OK!"

Support them

"Children are mirrors, and they reflect what they see," says Dr. Benson. If your child shares an experience with microaggression and they're not comfortable speaking up, show them you believe them and you support them. Talk to other adults involved. And make sure to check in with the children involved in the following days.

The Bottom Line

History tells me that one day my beautiful children will encounter microaggressions. They could be targeted for their biracial features, their mother's disability, and possibly something that has yet to make them too different for someone else's comfort. Children have the potential to be stronger and more united if we do the hard work with them today. I encourage you to sit in the discomfort of what you don't understand and learn from those who have stories to tell. Join our children as they embrace others with eyes of innocence and open hearts.

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