Black Families and ‘The Talk’

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 01, 2022
5 min read

Nick Battle clearly remembers his first brush with “The Talk.”

It was the mid-1980s. He was 8 years old, sitting in the back of his parents’ car in Virginia with his younger brother, when they noticed a patrol vehicle behind them. The brothers were excited, so they turned around and stared. Battle is Black and his parents, who grew up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and ’60s, had some immediate instructions.

“Do not turn around. Look straight ahead,” they told Battle and his brother. They explained that staring at the police could be dangerous when you had Black skin. If they didn’t stop staring, Battle’s parents said, the police could pull them over and search their car. Or worse.

He never forgot it.

“The Talk” is a catchall term for the conversation many Black parents have with their children about racial issues, especially how best to deal with the police, says Battle, now 45 and a mental health professional with a doctor of education degree in counseling psychology.

Sometimes it’s a conversation that continues over many years. For example, when Battle got his driver’s license in the 1990s, his parents expanded on the talk with something more than the typical instructions on how to parallel park. They talked to him in detail about what to do if he ever got pulled over by the police:

Turn the music down, they told him – even better, tune it to a gospel station so it doesn’t sound threatening. Keep your wallet on the dashboard so that you don’t have to reach into your pants pocket. Keep your glove compartment clear of anything but registration and insurance so you can get to them quickly. If you have to fumble around, police might suspect a weapon.

“My parents would walk us through the process, even down to making sure that the attorney that we got was white,” he says.

“It really informed how I viewed the police,” he says. “I did not necessarily view them as people that were going to help me. I viewed them as people I needed to make sure I didn’t have to engage with.”

Back then, Battle says, The Talk was all about “dos and don’ts” with the police. But since then, he says, it has evolved into a broader conversation on how to stay safe in a world with racial bias.

And that’s a good thing, says psychologist Earl Turner, PhD, founder of Therapy For Black Kids. “We know more about the psychological impacts of racism and bias,” he says. It can take a toll on your self-esteem and lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression, he says.  

That’s why today, Turner says, parents also use The Talk to teach children about cultural pride and mental health issues, as well as about their own rights under the law. 

“You can’t just talk about the negative ways race impacts you. You also have to talk to kids about their own identity and highlight the positive aspects of their culture,” he says.

Research shows that these kinds of positive messages about cultural pride and personal agency do help children of color to process racial issues in a healthier way.

There are age-appropriate ways to have different versions of The Talk throughout a child’s life, Turner says.

For example, children as young as 3 or 4 can have conversations about how people are different.

“They notice differences,” he says. “You can have conversations about people having different skin colors, different hair, different racial backgrounds.”

Parents can take middle school-age children to museums where they can learn about the history of segregation and the civil rights movement, Turner says. As kids grow into later teenage years, parents can discuss events in the news, like police shootings, he says.

It’s also important to learn how to channel some of the emotional turmoil that can come from dealing with racial issues. After the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, Turner encouraged clients to find safe and useful ways to deal with their anger. One group decided to protest together as a way to channel their emotions. 

“Rage, if it is not checked, can lead to depression and a lot of risky behaviors,” says Maya Nelson, a therapist based in Orlando who also leads a group of Black mothers with concerns about their children.

The group meets once a month. Mothers use it as a chance to talk to each other about how to approach topics like racism and school shootings with their children.

Nelson has found success with narrative therapy – more commonly used for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Narrative therapy helps patients break down traumatic events and “reinterpret and rewrite” them in a more helpful light, according to the American Psychological Association.

Nelson asks people to write down negative experiences and then read them out loud.

This helps people, particularly teenagers, process anger. Instead of shying away from it, or trying to sugar-coat things, it is best to address “ugly” feelings head-on, she says.

The Talk has changed over the years, but the issues it deals with have not. Many Black parents continue to fear racial bias and violence against their children. And research shows that racial violence against one Black person in the community affects the mental and even physical health of the entire community.

Still, the fact that the research was done at all is a sign of progress, Battle says. There also seems to be a growing openness about the problem, and an expanding library of resources to help parents navigate this tricky territory.

The American Psychological Association’s Resilience website, for example, is dedicated to “uplifting youth through healthy communication about race” and has numerous resources for parents, kids, and teachers.

As a therapist, Battle now helps other parents talk with their own children. He has two golden rules: Communicate as often as possible and don’t beat around the bush.

“If you are having conversations with your children on a regular basis about everything, then you’ll be able to have a conversation about anything.”

Then, when the time comes, Battle says, both kids and parents are in a much better position to begin The Talk.