Experts also suggest that having conversations about race and racial justice could safeguard children’s health by protecting them from stress-induced diseases that could develop as they move from childhood into adulthood.
“We know that (the experience of) racism is a form of stress, and repeated exposure to that stress can have a negative impact on children as they grow up,” said Dr. Kim Reynolds, 38, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System, which has been raising awareness about the link between racial discrimination and physical illness.
An ongoing experiment in Baltimore found that people who reported having been discriminated against “a lot” had higher systolic blood pressure and higher declines in kidney function. Another study suggested a link between African Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination and hypertension.
Blacks are at greater risk for developing high blood pressure than whites, and the differences start in the 18-34 group, with 12% of the people in that group living with the disease, compared with 10% for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 50-to-64 age group, 61% of Blacks had high blood pressure, compared with 41% among whites, the CDC found.
Children on the receiving end of racism can start seeing themselves as “less than” from age 3, according to Reynolds. That can impact their school performance, their confidence levels and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
But secondhand experiences can also have severe negative impacts on children.
Toddlers quickly pick up on current events and tensions and, as a result, can experience vicarious trauma, or share the pain of individuals they perceive as being hurt in their day-to-day lives or through TV screens.
“Even if they are not on the receiving end, they see what’s happening in society and that’s causing them anxiety because they do not know how to fully express themselves,” said Reynolds. “And that means they may also be internalizing racism or further perpetuating racism against fellow students and not even realize it.”
Reynolds and Alamdari said that in the aftermath of high-profile incidents of violence like George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota, parents will notice children becoming more irritable, shutting down or mirroring the discomfort of their household members when race comes up in conversation.
“These are all clues on how your child is processing this traumatic information,” said Alamdari. “And they are clues that we should all become more connected.”
For the little ones, this means introducing the concepts of race and diversity through play-based activities and smart purchases.
“Are they representative of all peoples, all shapes, all sizes, all hair textures?” asked Alamdari, who noted parents should ask themselves these types of questions before buying toys and books, or playing movies or cartoons on TV.