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How Building a Positive Self-Image Helps Parents and Black Children Cope with Racial Stress

June 2, 2019

June 2, 2019

Self-image is created by others. We learn, “If I behave this way, I am treated this way. So I MUST be this because I am treated like that.”

In the case of race, those who create our self-image are greater society. If you are Black, you have unconsciously inherited society’s views of you, just as we unconsciously inherit our parents’ views of us so that we behave in line with how our family system expects us to.

An analogy I use with therapy clients: “the fish does not know what ‘water’ is.” While our minds seem to be logical, all of our thoughts, fears, etc., are based on things that we learn in our experience. If we ARE our thoughts, then we are our experiences. So if we have experienced certain things, we identify with that experience, which is reflected in the ways we think. This is an important concept to grasp for our discussion.

When I use the word “unconscious” I mean, “without conscious awareness.” How does society view Black and brown people? Look around you. The killing of unarmed Black men by police, criminalizing of immigrants, telling Black people that their hair in their natural state is “unprofessional” send unconscious messages to the Black community that they are simply inferior, wrong, or do not measure up to societal standards, simply because they are Black.

“These messages, if not examined and screened out as nonsense, turn into our self-image – you may begin to unconsciously believe that you are inferior.”

These messages, if not examined and screened out as nonsense, turn into our self-image – you may begin to unconsciously believe that you are inferior. Then, these unconscious beliefs may make you less likely to believe you deserve to be treated fairly in the eyes of the American public.

This is the first step in helping your children. Acknowledging that you, yourself, have likely inherited these messages unconsciously. The second step? Look for the messages as they occur, with an understanding that they are not a reflection of you. This is a larger society’s worldview, but YOU get to choose whether or not you take it personally. The trick here is, seeing it as it happens. Then, as you develop an ability to see through messages of inferiority, see the messages as false, see them as nonsense, you can facilitate this understanding in your children’s minds.

Now, what do you “do” exactly to help your children?

Great question. When your child encounters racial stress in the form of unfair treatment, direct discrimination (racial slurs, violence), etc., the first thing you need to do is ask them how it made them feel. This is critical in developing what we call “emotional intelligence” in the brain.

Think of the brain as having two halves. The left half has logic and words, and the right half has emotions. What I do as a therapist, and what you can do as a parent, is “integrate” the two halves, by helping your child put words (left brain), to emotions (right brain). What this does is lowers the intensity of your child’s experience of emotions, AND helps them know what they are feeling when they feel it. In the case of racial stress, it can help them understand that it was not THEM who is bad.

Whenever your child is experiencing emotions related to racial stress, follow these steps.

  • Ask: “How did that make you feel?”
  • Listen fully until they are finished expressing themselves, without trying to change the emotion THEY are feeling. Your internal experience is not theirs, so leave your emotions out of their space.
  • Validate. “That sounds so hard.” “Mommy and daddy love you, and it makes us sad to see you hurt.” “Is there anything we can do to make this a better day?”
  • Organize the experience! “Sometimes people will treat you differently or unfairly because of your race, and that will make you feel bad emotions. But you must always remember that having bad emotions doesn’t make you a bad person and that it’s impossible for you to be bad for being the race that you are. People that think that race makes someone bad are wrong.”

  • See if they understand. “What do you think about that?”
  • Reflect for yourself as the parent. How did that go? Did they understand? Did I speak too fast? How did that make ME feel?

Rinse. Repeat. This won’t look perfect in every situation, but the key here is that, until discrimination stops, it is important to take care of the emotions of children. By doing this, Black children will avoid developing an inferior self-image, and they will better understand their emotional lives, which means better behavior and better mental health.

Broderick Sawyer, MS

Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student, University of Louisville

Broderick Sawyer, MS, originally from Connecticut, is a third-year practicum student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at the University of Louisville. He is working under the supervision of Dr. Monnica Williams.

Mr. Sawyer’s research interests have focused on OCD, racism-related stress and trauma, and treatment utilization in racial/ethnic minority populations. Mr. Sawyer has published several book chapters and peer-reviewed articles surrounding differential symptom expression in post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His clinical experiences include providing outpatient treatment for trauma and depression using CBT and functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP). Mr. Sawyer has also provided clinical lectures for mental health professionals on racism-related stress and trauma, connecting with African American clients, assessing OCD in diverse populations, and culturally sensitive interventions when working with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients.

This article is re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s RESilience Initiative, which provides resources to parents and caregivers for promoting the strength, health, and well-being of children and youth of color. Learn more at

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