By Dominique Parris, Victor St. John, Jessica Dym Bartlett, Child Trends, June 23, 2020
Most Black children in the United States encounter racism in their daily lives. Ongoing individual and collective psychological or physical injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based adversity, discrimination, and stress, referred to as racial trauma, is harmful to children’s development and well-being. Events that may cause racial trauma include threats of harm and injury, hate speech, humiliating and shaming events, or any other form of individual, historical, or institutional racism. Children also experience racial trauma after hearing about or witnessing another person’s direct experiences, often referred to as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. To help protect children from the harmful effects of racial trauma, caregivers must start talking to them about race and racism early—when children are very young and first developing a sense of racial identity.
Racism has long existed in America’s institutions and in Americans’ everyday interpersonal relationships. Anti-Black racism is inextricably intertwined with the history of the United States, beginning with slavery and continuing through today in the form of police violence, mass incarceration, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and other resources. While children of color across the country experience racial trauma every day without receiving broad public attention, there are galvanizing moments in which racism and racial violence manifest in the public eye—as seen in the 1955 case of 14-year old Emmett Till, the 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and now the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. The video footage of Mr. Floyd’s death captured by a 17-year-old Black girl has increased our sense of urgency to reject racism of all forms, and to help children and adolescents make sense of and cope with racial trauma.
It is common for caregiving adults to wonder and worry about how they should talk to children about racism and racial trauma. In fact, research suggests that too few caregivers talk to children about race. However, research on racial identity development and anti-racism education offers useful guidance for having these conversations effectively. Below, we outline several steps that caregivers can take to support all children, and especially those who have experienced direct or secondary racial trauma. While the evidence strongly suggests that caregivers need a holistic understanding of how, and in what ways, racial trauma impacts children and youth of all races and ethnicities, the recommendations below focus primarily on anti-Black racism and the racial trauma experienced by Black children and families. These recommendations can provide caregivers with a foundation for speaking with children about racism and racial trauma.