Child’s Exposure to Racial Discrimination & Mental Health | C&F
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Involved, vigilant parenting in African American families protects children from the negative effects of racial discrimination

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | December 2021 

It is important to appreciate the strength-based cultural assets in African American families that mitigate the link between a child’s exposure to racial discrimination and later poor mental health.

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In a study of about 900 African American families in the U.S. states of Iowa and Georgia, involved, vigilant parenting during middle childhood protected children from the negative effects of experiencing racial discrimination. This type of parenting was characterized by warmth, acceptance, and responsiveness, as well as by less controlling and harsh behaviour.

Involved, vigilant parenting is key to children developing the capacity to regulate their emotions and avoid poor mental health outcomes that can emerge from racism. This confirms findings from earlier research of African American families, with associations between positive parent-child relationships in middle childhood and adolescents having skills to make decisions, pay attention, avoid distractions, set priorities, and control emotions.

In this study, the researchers make the case that, given how typical the experience of the negative effects of racial discrimination is in African American families, it is important to understand these strength-based, cultural parenting assets. Family support services need to understand and build around these assets when delivering preventative interventions for African-American families.

Middle Childhood

Middle childhood is an important stage in child development. This is when children develop a greater sense of self and the capacity to regulate their emotions. Their social world expands during this time as they learn how to engage in wider social settings. Such social competence is associated with numerous positive developmental outcomes in adolescence. Talking to your children about racism is another topic we’ve covered.

In the abovementioned study, African-American mothers were asked how satisfied they were with their children and how happy they were with their relationship with their children. The mothers were also asked questions like, “How often do you know what your child does after school?” “When you discipline your child, how often does the type of discipline you use depend on your mood?” and “How often do you give reasons to your child for your decisions?”

Middle childhood is an important stage in child development. This is when children develop a greater sense of self and the capacity to regulate their emotions.

When the mothers reported experiences of discrimination, they were more likely to report depression and anxiety on their part, as well as strained relationships with their children.

These in turn were associated with a greater likelihood of lower-quality parenting, as assessed by the mother. Both maternal depression/anxiety and lower parenting quality are linked to a greater likelihood of children developing poor self-control and emotion regulation skills.

Results & Conclusions

The study produced one surprising result. African American children who experienced the negative effects of racial discrimination during middle childhood showed a higher likelihood of developing stronger self-regulation and emotional control in early adolescence, which in turn was associated with less depression and greater social competence. This was the same for boys and girls. In some children, exposure to adversity during early childhood may help them self-soothe and regulate emotion, protecting them from adverse impacts on mental health.

However, this unexpected finding does not counteract the overall negative correlations between a family’s experience of racial discrimination and symptoms of depression in children. These links were found both in this and in earlier work by the same researchers.

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