This blog will demonstrate three strategies for parents to manage their own race-related stress and link how practicing these strategies influences the development of healthy coping styles in children. There will be a brief definition of race-related stress and why it is important to address and manage.
Racism-related Stress in the Black Community
Racism-related stress is psychological distress that results from a direct experience of racism and/or experiencing racial discrimination on a chronic basis. This can include perceived racist verbal insults and threats, discrimination based on ethnicity, and racial microaggressions (e.g., a store clerk not placing money in your hand). The key word here is “perceived,” it is important to note that even if the other person did not intend their comments or actions to be racist, we can still be emotionally injured if we perceive it that way. A landmark study by Landrine & Klonoff (1996) found that as many as 98% of Black Americans experience racial/ethnic discrimination in the course of a year.
“Imagine what it must be like for our children who may not yet have the language to express how they are feeling about something they witnessed or racism that was directed toward them.”
A stressful reaction to a race-based encounter requires awareness and appropriate coping skills. As adults it can be difficult to discuss how we felt during a racist encounter. Imagine what it must be like for our children who may not yet have the language to express how they are feeling about something they witnessed or racism that was directed toward them. Increasing our coping strategies helps to reduce feelings of shame and/or regret that may result from how we respond to racist encounters. Practicing healthy coping skills can also provide a sense of empowerment. We are not always consciously aware that we are experiencing this distress; however, we may be aware of the consequences of this type of stress: headaches, symptoms of depression, anger, fear, sleep issues, hypertension, feelings of helplessness, hypervigilance and much more.
Why is it Important to Address Race-related Stress as an Adult?
As a psychologist, the aftermath of experiences of racism is something that has frequently come up in therapy sessions with Black adults. Clients express frustration regret and confusion and sadness when discussing past racist encounters. Often as adults, many of us try our hardest not to think about negative racial experiences, as if that will reduce the impact, they have on us. Our typical go-to strategies when we experience unpleasant sensations, emotions, and thoughts lean toward escape and avoidance. We have heard so many messages about being strong and “taking the high road” that when we are impacted by an experience, we tend to bury it. Over time, this avoidance weighs on us and starts to manifest in ways that we did not expect. For example, losing our temper easily, feeling constantly on edge, difficulty sleeping or mistrust of those who look dissimilar.
How Can We Model Healthy Coping Strategies for Race-related Stress for Our Children?
What stops us from discussing our experiences with racism with children? I’ve had parents say to me that they aren’t sure if their children can process what has happened or that they don’t know if they have the language to explain things to their children. The irony is that many Black parents are already sending their children messages about handling racism through racial socialization. Racial socialization consists of behaviors and messages communicated to youth-related to how to understand and manage interracial interactions. This is often done through conversations with children about racial-ethnic traditions and history and preparing children for negative racial situations. For example, I don’t have one Black friend whose parents didn’t talk to them about what to do if the police stopped them. Sound familiar? This may be an example of racial socialization that your own parents used (although they probably didn’t use this phrase). Many scholars have noted that racial socialization appears to be an integral part of parenting in Black families. They also agree that racial socialization can help to improve academic outcomes and promote positive development among Black children. Starting these conversations with our children may be as easy as modeling our own processing of racist encounters. Modeling may be a good place to start until we feel that our children are ready to have more in-depth, and developmentally appropriate, conversations about racism.
How Can I Start Demonstrating the Message of Healthy Coping?
There are multiple ways of addressing and processing our racism-related stress as adults that can be a message to children about how to cope. Here are three strategies that can easily be incorporated into our daily routines AND allow modeling of healthy coping to our children (multi-tasking for the win!):
1. Practice using emotion language: Often we discuss racism from a cognitive or thought perspective, but we don’t discuss how we feel about it (e.g., “That person is terrible for calling me a name vs. I am angry and hurt by the name I was called”. Using a feelings wheel can help increase the number of emotion words available to us.
- We can feel validated when we learn a language that fits with our experiences and accompanying feelings.
- This can also be made into an activity with children. Parents can create faces with the emotion words on it (or for us less crafty adults, you can buy feeling magnets online) and encourage them to pick out the emotion they are feeling daily and post it on the fridge. This will help them start to identify how they are feeling in different situations.
2. Engage in mindful practices: Mindfulness practice allows us to know ourselves better so that we become more aware of the patterns of our mind, emotions, and reactions. So, the next time someone offends you, you can bring mindfulness to the moment, noticing your physical reactions, noticing the emotion of anger, noticing the urge to act. And then, after noticing, choosing how you want to respond. Your responses become less reflexive and more reflective. This is a hard task for most of us because our minds spend a lot of time reliving/remembering the past and/or planning for and worrying about the future.
- Start with taking 10-15 minutes daily and doing a body-scan check-in. Bring awareness to your body and acknowledge what you are feeling and where you feel it.
- Due to the short length of many mindfulness practices, this is a perfect activity to practice with your child to nurture awareness and practice using the present mind.
3. Nurture and develop a social support system: The more social support you have the less racism-related stress you may feel. Bonus, social networks increases our quality of life.
- Invite friends to lunch or volunteer at your local community organization.
- Get together with friends and family to process your experiences, or to just simply laugh and enjoy.
- Consider hosting friends with your child. A planned gathering with friends, where you each get to invite someone and do something fun together!
Remember, part of feeling stressed is that unconsciously, we don’t feel equipped to handle the situation. Develop a self-care plan for stressful situations. When we deliberately carve out time to engage in activities that are pleasurable and help us to unwind, it can help us to feel better equipped. This is enhanced when we include supportive people in our lives such as friends from church or family members. That’s right having a dance party, taking a bath, going for a long run or eating that piece of cake is setting a good example of healthy coping.
For more tips and tricks for self-care and how to cope with race-related stress as a parent, check out APA’s new Parenting Tip Tool: https://www.apa.org/res/parent-resources/racial-stress
Jessica Jackson received her B.A. in psychology from North Carolina A&T State University, M.A. in clinical mental health counseling from George Washington University and Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a minor in integrated behavioral health from New Mexico State University. She completed her predoctoral internship at UCLA and her postdoctoral fellowship at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System in primary care mental health integration (PC-MHI) and substance use disorders (SUD). She has provided mental health services in correctional facilities, university counseling centers, high schools, and healthcare settings. Jessica is a 2019 recipient of the Society of Counseling Psychology, Section for Ethnic & Racial Diversity Outstanding Service to Diverse/Underserved Communities Award. She has served as a virtual mentor and student liaison for the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race (APA Division 45), as a committee member for the Association of Psychologist in Academic Health Centers Committee on Diversity & Disparities (APA Division 12 Section 8) and on the Student SIG E-Board for the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Jessica was a postdoctoral member of the 2018-2019 VA Psychology Training Council Multicultural Diversity Committee and a current APA Council of National Psychological Associations for the Advancement of Ethnic Minority Interests (CNPAAEMI) Leadership Development Institute Fellow. As a practitioner-scientist -advocate, her research focus has primarily centered around barriers to outpatient treatment, culturally competent clinical practice, race-related stress, and racial trauma.
Hughes, D., Witherspoon, D., Rivas-Drake, D., & West-Bey, N. (2009). Received ethnic/racial socialization messages and youth’s academic and behavioral outcomes: Examining the mediating role of ethnic identity.
Landrine, H., & Klonoff, E. A. (1996). The schedule of racist events: A measure of racial discrimination and a study of its negative physical and mental health consequences. Journal of Black Psychology, 22(2), 144-168.
Spencer, M. B. (2006). Phenomenology and ecological systems theory: Development of diverse groups. In W. Damon, & R. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, sixth ed.: Theoretical models o f human development (Vol. 1, pp.829-893). New York: Wiley.
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 www.apa.org/res.