Children soak up everything around them. They’re also quite vulnerable to social evils like racism. This can have serious consequences on their emotional health and wellbeing. Here’s how racism affects our children in some ways that deserve more attention.
Children are more susceptible to societal ills than any other demographic. Because their lives are just beginning, children are always watching and listening, trying to figure out what this world is all about.
A young child’s emotional health can go a long way in shaping their development as teens and adults. Traumatic experiences at an early age can leave permanent scars. Racism and other acts of discrimination are known risk factors for mental illness and behavioral problems, both of which negatively affect the child’s wellbeing.
Racism also limits a child’s opportunities in life and the ability to achieve their goals. Trauma in the form of bullying or racism at school can erode their self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and other measures of emotional health.
The damage may start earlier in life, even before birth. When an expecting mother is the victim of racism, the anxiety she endures as a result is felt by the developing fetus. Research has shown that mothers dealing with chronic stress while pregnant give birth to babies with higher risks of developing mental health issues and other forms of illness.
How Does Racism Affect a Child’s Health and Wellbeing?
One of the biggest consequences of racism on children is that they experience long-term stress. The brain perceives discriminatory behavior as a threat, and the body’s natural response is to ramp up production of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol are linked to negative mood, anxiety, and depression immune-suppression, among other health issues.
The prolonged exposure to stress hormones leads to inflammatory reactions in children. This increases the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Rates of chronic health issues are disproportionately higher among racial and ethnic minorities.
Access to Health Care
Minority groups tend to experience higher rates of unemployment, often due to systemic racism. Disparities in health insurance coverage and access to quality medical care could be one reason why the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is highest among black infants.
This is the most common manifestation of racism among children. Being excluded—or worse, physically attacked—for having a different skin color can lead to social avoidance, depression and an increased risk of suicide, an issue that has become a public health emergency.
We can prepare our children for the reality of racism by teaching them that diversity is something to be celebrated, that our differences are what make this world a special place to live. As parents, we play the biggest role in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of our children. By modeling empathetic words and deeds and by showing what it means to coexist peacefully—from an early age—our children will only know equality and respect for all human beings.