How experiences of racism and discrimination affects children and adolescents
Experiences involving racism and discrimination can be very worrisome for families and cause caregivers, children, and teens to experience fear, concerns about safety, anger, and confusion. Despite some of the discomfort or difficulty that may occur when talking about these issues it is important. The table below illustrates the different ways that the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has noted that children and teens can affected by the different issues related to race, discrimination, and inequality.
- Infants and toddlers are aware of sounds and sights in their environments. Young children's perception of safety is closely linked to the perceived safety of their caregivers.
- Caregivers’ own stressors, including the effects of racial trauma, can impact their emotional availability for their children and ability to protect them from danger and stress.
- Younger children tend to focus on sights and sounds and interpret words and images literally. They may not fully grasp the concept of an image being repeatedly replayed on television and may think each time that the event is happening over and over again.
- Reactions may depend on whether they have directly experienced an event or have a personal connection with those involved.
- School-age children tend to view media coverage in personal terms, worrying that a similar event could happen to them.
- Overexposure to events can lead to preoccupations with their own safety or that of their friends, which in turn can lead to distractibility and problems in school.
- Youth in this age range typically have a better understanding of events and the implications of issues such as racial trauma.
- Older students may be exposed to a wide range of images and information via social media as well.
- High school-aged students may become fixated on events as a way of trying to cope or deal with.
How to support children and teens as issues about race and discrimination arise
As issues arise within your home, community, child’s school, or in the country, it’s important that you check in with your child to see what information they already know, how they are doing, and if they have any questions. Your conversations and interactions with members of your family may vary depending on age. For example, with teens you may be able to have detailed conversations about what they have experienced or observed in regard to racism, inequality, or discrimination. With younger children, your focus may be more on answer questions to reduce any confusion that they may have and helping to ensure that they feel safe. During these conversations and if events are ongoing in your community, you want to watch for signs that your child or teen may be experiencing severe anxiety, distress, or concerns about safety and seek support from a mental health provided if necessary. It’s equally important that caregivers are aware of their own physical and emotional wellbeing. Last, caregivers should be mindful of how much access children and teens have to media and news. While it is good to have conversations about what is going on in your community, overexposure can cause individuals to feel more anxious or afraid about their safety and wellbeing when leaving home.
Tips when talking with children and teens about racism and discrimination
Many individuals may view race as a sensitive or taboo topic. Caregivers may be unsure of when their child is ready to have a conversation about race and how those conversations may impact the way that the view the world and interact with others. It’s important that when choosing to have these conversations the parent is comfortable and prepared because children can perceive discomfort. We want these conversations to serve as an example to children that it is okay to have conversations about race. During these conversations you want to foster a safe and open environment where the child or teen feels comfortable asking questions and expressing if they are confused. Of course, the amount of information that is shared will depend on the age of the child or teen. Race can be a complex topic to discuss and parents have to acknowledge that they may not have all the answers when children asks questions. It’s important to provide factual information and during times when parents are unsure of how to answer a question they can use that as an opportunity to search for more information with their child or teen.
When issues are occurring on a local or national level, families can use these events as teachable moments when they can discuss the history of racism and discrimination in this country and the need for systematic changes in our schools, workplaces, and communities.
Strengths and resiliency within minority families and communities
In times when racism, discrimination, and inequity often plague minority communities and families it is important to highlight the strengths and resiliency found among racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, despite years of historical and racial trauma, families have utilized a range of protective factors which have helped them to cope and rebound or adjust to years of adversity. When talking with children, it’s important that caregivers continue to highlight the strengths and rich cultural traditions that are observed within these communities.