Family-Centered Programs May Help Protect Black Youth From Effects of Racism

Youth sitting next to each other, looking straight ahead

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There is extensive data on the mental health effects of racism, underscoring how long-standing prejudices within the US serve as a point of trauma for varied marginalized populations, particularly the Black community.

In an attempt to address this ongoing concern, a recent study published in JAMA Network found that family-centered prevention programs focused on protective caregiving have the capacity to help mitigate some of the harmful effects that systemic racism and discrimination can have on long-term mental health.

The study included an analysis of two randomized clinical trials, including 502 participants between the ages of 14 and 16, that tested family-centered prevention programs, titled the Strong African American Families–Teen (SAAF–T) program and the Adults in the Making (AIM) program. Both of these programs were enacted between 2007 and 2008 within locations in 12 rural counties in Georgia.

In addition to supporting the evidence connecting racial discrimination and mental health issues, this study showed how family-centered interventions can lessen the effects of this subsequent trauma.

Dr. Nekeisha Hammond says, “Racism and discrimination can affect the mental health of youth by increasing the likelihood of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence, to name a few.  Youth can have difficulties with identity development, as they struggle with the lack of diversity and inclusion throughout their communities.”

The Role of Trauma in Youth Behavior

The effects of racial discrimination show up in various ways, especially for youth. “Racism, discrimination, and prejudice can also impact behavioral issues, as some youth may externalize their frustration or sadness, in the form of 'acting out,'” says Hammond.

Bias and the School to Prison Pipeline

This is one way that Black youth become justice-involved; instead of receiving the proper attention and having their basic needs met, they are treated as problems rather than children who are in need of support.

This can result in an ongoing relationship with the carceral system, or a cynical view of adults and other relationships. “Some children and teens may become more argumentative, refuse to do chores or schoolwork, and overall illustrate more agitation towards their interactions with others.  Racial trauma is real, and the trauma can negatively affect the child’s response to their environment.” Hammond says.

This is often the start of what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, where students of color are funneled into the criminal justice system for minor infractions or assumed behavioral issues.

There are cases that show Black and Brown students being reported to authorities or receiving harsher punishments than their white counterparts. This is the result of bias from both teachers and law enforcement, and other forms of institutional racism. Additionally, entering the carceral system affects your social standing and career trajectory, resulting in high rates of recidivism for those who are ultimately incarcerated.

Hammond says, “Unfortunately, there is a lack of education many times in the Black community for youth mental health.  Due to the stigma of mental health treatment, many individuals do not seek therapeutic services."

Hammond adds that many times there are resources, but there is a lack of information about what resources are available.  She cites the idea that Black youth have it ingrained in them to "just be strong," which can have negative effects, especially if there is a mental health condition that goes untreated.

The Importance of Family Involvement

Trauma-informed counselor Sabrina Sarro, LCSW says that family involvement "helps to re-route barriers to accessing healing, health, and thriving. This further crystallize community support, camaraderie, and love for the youth. Having an entire family of support versus one person of support can greatly improve access tombetter mental health, and can re-route maladaptive coping strategies.”

Even with this data highlighting the ways in which we can address the aftermath of trauma and mental health implications due to discrimination, it is important to remember that the root cause of these gaps in mental wellness for Black youth and their families is the discrimination itself. For the Black community, which has dealt with the repercussions of an unbalanced society for centuries, positive intervention methods can provide a major boost.

Sarro says, “This can change everything. This can literally save the life of a child or young adult. This codes who will fight for the young person. Having more support only helps to fortify the young person and advocate for them in getting what they deserve. How the young person will perceive their access to community backing and support. Collective voices often produce more power than a single voice, although of course, not always.”

Holistic and Trauma-Informed Care

Hammond says, “It is critical that we approach youth development from a holistic perspective. Too often, there are stereotypes about a youth’s behavior without fully understanding the 'big picture' of what is happening with the child."

Youth development consists of several different aspects, including physical, emotional, social, academic, cultural, spiritual, and more, Hammond says. "Understanding the current stressors for the child is important, along with the various levels of development."

When it comes to interacting with children, addressing your own biases and judgements is vital to the success of the youth that you engage with. Sarro says, “Approaching things from a holistic perspective means we are being intersectional in our assessment of that development, and are understanding that the word 'development' is quite subjective." That is especially true, she says, given that people of color are often faced with white supremacy.

There is a common theme of encouraging resilience with youth of color, and while that is a needed skill in adults, children of color deserve to be children too. Hammond says, “It is important that Black youth are truly heard and their feelings validated. Instead of being told by people to 'get over it' or 'brush off' their strong emotions, it is critical to have listening sessions where they can start to process their feelings.”

These behaviors of dismissal can show up within the family as well—the work to address problems from a person-centered angle and being educated about the ways trauma shows up is vital in every avenue of a child's life. This is one of the reasons why ensuring the family has a role in the prevention programs is vital to the success of the youth.

“Families can have 'heart to heart' conversations and acknowledge that youth can experience stress too.  It can be helpful also for families to remind children of their strengths, as they live in a society where they often hear negative comments due to racism and judgment about the color of their skin.” Hammond says.

What This Means For You

A holistic and trauma-informed approach to engaging with youth can begin at home with the family. Because of the ways that trauma is often passed down through generations, as well as negative coping mechanisms, alongside the prevalence of racism and its tangible effects, being as inclusive and understanding as possible when addressing these issues is vital to the success and mental health of young kids.

1 Source
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  1. Brody GH, Yu T, Chen E, Miller GE, Barton AW, Kogan SM. Family-Centered Prevention Effects on the Association Between Racial Discrimination and Mental Health in Black Adolescents: Secondary Analysis of 2 Randomized Clinical TrialsJAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(3):e211964. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.1964