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How Racial Trauma Affects Your Adolescent

How Racial Trauma Affects Your Adolescent

Discrimination and racism are nothing new. They have lurked in the bloodstream of the country for a long time now.

Racism often happens blatantly when someone knowingly oppresses and devalues people of color. Yet, it can also spread quietly, almost inadvertently, traumatizing those it touches all the same.

Racism is children being mercilessly separated from their parents at the United States–Mexico border. It is present in the murders of Black Americans by police officers who too often face no charges or accountability.

It shows itself in the marked increase in hate crimes toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the beginning of the pandemic, and in the overwhelmingly high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Racism can take a toll on all of us. For children and adolescents, particularly, the physical and mental health effects of racial trauma can be devastating and life-altering.

Learning to recognize key signs of racial trauma in youth can help educators, parents, and caregivers provide support and a path to healing.

Adolescence typically refers to the developmental stage that begins with puberty and ends with the transition to young adulthood.

For most youth, adolescence begins between ages 10 and 12 (the preteen years), and ends in the late teens or early 20s.

Culture, gender, upbringing, and any number of other factors can play a part in this important developmental stage, so the path through adolescence won’t look the same for everyone.

For most adolescents, however, key developments taking place in the brain and body include:

  • physical growth
  • the beginnings of sexual interest
  • the ability to think abstractly and hypothetically
  • the capacity to consider moral or existential questions
  • increased ability to delay gratification
  • individuation and identity development
  • a need for independence
  • improved ability to regulate emotions

These changes — and their impact on peer and family interactions and relationships — may be stressful and sometimes difficult to navigate.

Additional stressors, such as discrimination, racism, and microaggressions, can increase the distress and in some instances lead to long-term trauma.

Trauma, in turn, may get in the way of healthy physical and emotional growth and identity formation.

Racial trauma — aka race-based traumatic stress — describes racism’s cumulative effects on a person’s emotional and mental health.

Children, adolescents, and adults can all experience the effects of racial trauma. For younger people, however, these effects could affect all future experiences.

“Racism can shape the attitudes and beliefs of people who both experience [it], as well as witness it. This includes both the oppressed group as well as those in the majority group,” explained Jason Wu, a licensed psychologist in San Jose, California.

Racism has many forms, and racial trauma can develop from different types of race-based discrimination:

Individual racism

Individual racism involves specific prejudices and biases directed from one person or group to another.

Examples include:

  • hate crimes
  • racist slurs
  • blatant discrimination, such as refusing a service

Systemic racism

Systemic or institutional racism includes specific practices and policies in healthcare, housing, education, and other societal structures that prioritize whiteness and exclude people of color — explicitly or implicitly.

Examples include:

  • lack of access to healthcare
  • lack of equal educational opportunities
  • being treated differently in similar situations by authority officials
  • corporations and companies with overwhelmingly white leadership

Internalized racism

Internalized racism is the “internalization of racial oppression present in society,” as Wu puts it.

This means that someone who’s been the target of individual or systemic racial discrimination may, in time, develop beliefs and behaviors that inadvertently support or comply with such racism.

For example, children of some marginalized groups who live with learning difficulties may believe or accept their teachers’ dismissal of their behaviors as “troublemakers.”

Or, young professionals may choose not to apply for some jobs because they “know” they won’t pass the interview.

Or teens may follow and conform to certain fashions or looks to blend in with their white peers.

Vicarious traumatization

This involves witnessing acts of racism against other people or in the media.

For example, an adolescent who belongs to a marginalized group might develop a sense of not being safe or accepted because they’ve witnessed other people in their group being discriminated against.

This also includes intergenerational trauma. Race-based trauma and its effects can pass from one generation to the next. This explains the devastating effects of historical racism in our society.

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are words and actions that convey a sense of white superiority and bias against people of color.

Microaggressions might look like:

  • praising a person of color’s English accent or intelligence
  • a refusal to acknowledge racism and its harmful impacts
  • TV shows with a primarily white cast

Racial trauma can appear in different ways and intensity levels from one adolescent to another.

Not every adolescent will act out on their concerns. Sometimes, a sign that something might be going on is just a subtle or evident change in behavior.

Some common signs of racial trauma you might notice in your child or teen include:

  • ongoing emotional distress, including episodes of fear, anger, sadness, and irritability without any apparent cause
  • a tendency to put themselves down or assume their worth is lower than their peers
  • increased levels of generalized anxiety
  • trouble concentrating on tasks
  • withdrawing from social situations or having social anxiety
  • hypervigilance that includes jumpiness, restlessness, and heightened sensitivity to their surroundings
  • avoiding specific places or activities, such as school and after-school sports or clubs
  • difficulty accepting or following their cultural customs in public
  • lower self-esteem
  • physical symptoms, including aches and pains, appetite changes, and insomnia or other sleep problems

More specifically, your teen might:

  • say they see no point in going to school or applying for a scholarship when they won’t succeed anyway
  • directly express fear about becoming a target of hate crimes
  • constantly talk about death or safety issues
  • express concern for your safety or the safety of friends and family members
  • avoid the subject with an attitude of detachment or numbness, saying things like, “Whatever,” “I don’t care,” or “I don’t want to talk about it”
  • suddenly put less effort into schoolwork or after-school activities
  • eat or sleep more or less than usual
  • change their routines without an apparent reason
  • have trouble focusing at home or school, even on activities they usually enjoy
  • regress to child-like behaviors
  • worry excessively about ways to protect themselves

These behaviors can also be a sign of other mental health conditions and resemble symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even though race-based traumatic stress isn’t a formal diagnosis, it can show up in these and other ways as a direct result of exposure to racism and others forms of discrimination.

Racial trauma impacts everyone who experiences it. Full stop.

But ongoing trauma can have a particularly severe impact during childhood and adolescence when the brain is still developing.

The human body responds to threats, including traumatic events, by entering the fight, flight, or freeze mode.

This natural response triggers an increase in certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepares the body to fight or escape threats adequately.

This automatic fear response takes over to ensure survival. As it activates, parts of the brain don’t function as they typically would when there’s no stress.

This response can make it more difficult to plan, make rational decisions, and manage emotional responses while it’s activated.

If this happens once in a while, the fear response effects subside as the perceived threat disappears. If the threat is persistent, the body might be functioning on this fear response constantly.

When the body begins to expect or perceive threats on a regular basis, it can remain stuck in survival mode.

Over time, this can lead to hormonal imbalances, change existing pathways in the brain, and disrupt healthy growth and brain development in an adolescent, contributing to:

  • learning and memory issues
  • trouble processing and regulating emotions
  • physical and mental health symptoms

Living with fear

According to Wu, common mental and physical health effects of racial trauma can also include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • low self-worth and self-esteem
  • hopelessness
  • anger
  • behavior or conduct problems at home and school
  • substance use
  • adverse pregnancy outcomes
  • metabolic disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes

“Youth may also struggle to develop a self-identity if that identity goes against that status quo,” Wu explains. “They may try to assimilate with the status quo or reject it completely, which can leave them feeling as though they cannot fit in, no matter what they do.”

When it comes to their psychosocial health, adolescents who live with racial trauma may:

  • feel alienated and isolated from their peers
  • have trouble developing and maintaining friendships
  • respond with anger, rage, or other emotional outbursts
  • experience feelings of shame and self-doubt
  • give up on academic achievements or personal goals

Medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have emphasized the negative effects of race-based traumatic stress on adolescent development.

Scientific evidence also highlights the complex and long-lasting effects of racial trauma:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2018, American Indian/Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Black, and Hispanic youth between ages 16 and 24 had the highest school dropout rates.
  • Research from 2019 supports the connection between racial trauma and systemic oppression and substance use in American Indian communities.
  • According to 2018 research, people of color are more likely to experience police violence and serious emotional distress, including suicidal thoughts, as a result.

The cure for racial trauma, of course, lies in eradicating racism.

Yet white supremacy must be dismantled by those who benefit from it.

It can be painful and exhausting to wait on a change that often doesn’t depend on you. It can be additionally difficult to do so as you work to minimize the pain and distress it creates for you and your children.

You may not be able to defend your children from all acts of racism and discrimination, but you can help them develop resilience and strength to safeguard their identity and well-being.

Connecting with a culturally affirming therapist who specializes in trauma-informed therapy is a great place to start, if you and your family have access to professional support.

“Ideally, teens would be able to find a culturally aware therapist who can help them develop a strong self-identity and contextualize their experiences — there is something powerful about being able to name and label racism,” Wu notes.

“If therapy isn’t possible,” he says, “it can help to develop a stronger connection to one’s cultural identity, as some research suggests that can be a protective factor.”

Wu also recommends encouraging teens to recognize self-care needs and promote well-being by managing stress in healthy ways.

“Having a strong support network of validating and understanding family and friends can always be beneficial,” he says.

Community support and involvement

Getting involved in social justice movements and community-level activism may help some teens feel less hopeless and helpless against the tide of systemic racism.

Wu notes that having something tangible to work toward can offer an important way to create change, particularly when focusing on key issues, such as:

  • the criminal justice system
  • immigration reform
  • voter suppression

“Interacting with people of other cultures can also help us challenge our own prejudices and develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of race and humanity,” he says.


Racial Trauma in Film: How Viewers Can Address Re-traumatization

Re-traumatization by film can have profound effects on one’s mental health and well-being. Some may ask, “Well it’s just a movie can it really have that deep of an impact on someone’s mental health?” The answer to that question is, yes, it can.

When you are watching a movie or a show, your brain thinks the action on screen is happening to you. This is why you have to consciously tell your brain, “It is just a movie.” Our mirror neurons are part of the reason we cry during a sad part of a movie, laugh at jokes, and jump at a scary scene (Zacks, 2015). Our emotions are deeply impacted by watching film and media content. This raises the question: “What happens if we watch content that we have already experienced ourselves and was traumatizing in our real, present day life?”


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