Doctors from Cook Children's Medical Center talk about the impact of racial trauma and how to talk to children about it.
Parenting, Community & Racial Trauma: A Conversation
Children who experience trauma are likely to feel the impact of those experiences well into adulthood, if not properly addressed. When that trauma is related to the color of their skin or racial makeup, it is particularly stressful.
In the first of a two-part conversation, Dr. Anu Partap, medical director for the Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, and Dr. Kia Carter, medical director of Inpatient and Consultation Psychiatry Services – both of Cook Children’s Medical Center – talk about what to look for and how to talk to our children about this important issue.
First of all, what is racial trauma?
Dr. Partap: Racial trauma, if you really unpack it, is about traumatic life experience related to racial or ethnic identity. It is trauma experience tied specifically to how you look and what people’s beliefs, biases or attitudes are related to that assumption. The other part of racial trauma that’s different from other types of trauma is that with trauma related to how you look, whether it’s racial, ethnic, or otherwise, there may also be a historical context. So, the experience is not only a longitudinal life experience. It can have history that includes your ancestry and extends to how you feel about the community of people with whom you identify.
Dr. Carter: I think sometimes people get a little confused when we talk about racial trauma because someone may not understand how that could be traumatizing to someone. It’s important to make the community aware that trauma is different for everyone. We don’t get to say if someone else’s experience is traumatic or not. We all have different life experiences. In this circumstance we are speaking of an event or situation that caused significant distress regarding a person’s race or ethnicity. That could result in a traumatic experience for that individual.
How do traumatic experiences differ among children of different races?
Dr. Partap: A lot of the current focus around talking to children has been triggered by issues related to racism toward people who identify as Black or African American. The open dialogue we have now is the right time to talk to children about any and all race and ethnicity issues. Every experience is unique. It’s a good time to listen to our children’s personal experiences and positively guide their attitudes and biases toward other races. Letting children talk about their experiences with their own race or ethnicity adds to the important conversation that’s happening nationally.
Dr. Carter: On our unit, we don’t assume that just because you’re not a child of color that you don’t experience something. So, we bring it as an open topic of conversation with all our parents. It is vital that we make sure every child is aware that it is unacceptable to be singled out or targeted because of their race or ethnicity. Whether it be based on skin color, the type of hair that they have or simply that they look completely different than their peers, they should know to tell an adult what is happening. We stress a lot in the psychiatry world that there is no normal. Everybody is different in their own way and regardless of those differences we should not be targeted or made fun of because of those differences.
How do you recognize racial trauma? What are the signs in children that people should look for? How does someone know when to reach out for help?
Dr. Carter: As a psychiatrist, I see the same effects on children that any other trauma would have on anyone else: Emotional distress, anxiety, fear, hypervigilance or increased response to what may seem to be normal events. For instance, a child may feel a level of discomfort whenever a police car goes by. Maybe that child has been in the car when their parent was pulled over by a police officer and heard their parent says, “I’m only being pulled over because of my skin color.” As a result of that experience, when grown, the child could fear being pulled over when they see a police car drive by. That fear can create hypervigilance in that child from that one experience – a common reaction to a traumatizing situation.
Dr. Partap: That’s a great example that is often overlooked. Signs of emotional stress and trauma are similar across triggers, but a nurturing family and supportive community go a long way in protecting children from the impact of trauma. Families can keep an eye out for children having trouble sleeping, trouble eating (including overeating), or trouble playing with other children. If they’ve had negative experiences, children sometimes bring those negative experiences to a new experience since they’re expecting things to not go well. Anytime a child just isn’t acting like him or herself, it’s time to find out what’s behind the change and ask for help. For example, a drop in school performance is a huge red flag. During COVID-19, it’s easy to assume a drop in school performance is due to distance learning, but we have to be attuned to the child who is normally doing well but who just doesn’t seem to care anymore.
Dr. Carter: I agree, and for parents this is a red flag. If there are kids who normally enjoy going to school or participating in activities, enjoy social interaction with peers in person or virtually and now no longer want to do that, that is a sign something is different. We want parents to start to question this change and think that maybe this child is taking themselves out of uncomfortable situations for some reason, and that we as parents don’t even know why they have changed. This is the time when parents should start to ask more questions about their child’s day and just make sure that everything is going okay.
What advice do you give to parents for how to address these issues, and how to talk to their children?
Dr. Carter: A lot of kids don’t know that this is something that they’re experiencing. They don’t know that they may be targeted or bullied at school due to race. They may think, “People just don’t like me at school.” And they don’t know that could be because of their skin color or ethnicity until they actually talk to someone about these events. So, it falls on parents talk to their kids more, talk about their day, talk about what happened at school, let kids open up more and let them know it’s not taboo to talk about their feelings if something comes up.
Dr. Partap: As adults, it’s easy to bring our own life experiences to the situation and assume our children have had the same life experiences. Listen to what they say their life experiences have been with race or ethnicity, and let them learn from you how to best manage those experiences. It is really important children don’t feel shame when they’ve had a negative experience because of race or ethnicity. Talking about what happened with a trusted adult is an important first step.
Dr. Carter: I’d say it also depends on age level and developmental stage of the child. A four-year-old or five-year-old shouldn’t be having the same conversation that a 16-year-old would have with their parents. It’s okay to talk about it. But it’s more about finding that healthy balance, being honest about what’s going on and finding the right developmental terms to use with your child.
Dr. Partap: Exactly. And whether the trigger is race or another topic, you won’t know until you start asking. It circles right back to being in tune with your children and really asking questions routinely. Conversations about race allow kids to create their own understanding and world, which is a really important part of healing from racial trauma.
Next, Dr. Carter and Dr. Partap talk about their personal experiences with race, how they talk to their children, and what we can do together as a community to protect our children from racial trauma.