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Psychologist: By Age 4, Children Aware of Racial Stereotypes

June 09, 2020

As the world marches and protests for equal rights, the eyes of our children are watching, much like they observe and take cues from general adult behavior.

Very young children recognize racism and discrimination in their world early, and feel the effects both physically and emotionally, according to Dr. Aieyat Zalzala, a psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Day Program and Advanced Services for Adolescents with Psychosis Program at the Institute of Living, part of Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network.

“Most often, negative emotions such as anger, feeling disrespected and outrage are common following experiences with discrimination,” she said. “Alternatively, individuals may respond with more passive emotional responses such as absence of fear or low emotional response.”

Calling the effects of racism and discrimination on the minority community “profound,” Dr. Laura Saunders, also an IOL psychologist, said it can lead to “powerlessness, fear, anger and negative self-worth . . . affecting individuals of all ages.” Discrimination, she added, has a negative health effect on children, impacting access to education and healthcare, socio-economic status and basic safety.

Children can experience the impact of racism before they are even born, Dr. Zalzala said.

“The stress experienced by pregnant women of color, due to ongoing racial health disparities, can serve as a risk marker for chronic stress in their children,” Dr. Zalzala said. “Once born, growing up in homes of ethnic minorities, where health and education disparities exist due to systemic racism, can contribute to increased health problems.”

The result, research shows, is that minority children and adolescents are at risk for depressive symptoms as short- and long-term responses. The impact starts at a very young age, said Dr. Zalzala, who described age-specific development as:

  • By age 3, children start to differentiate between skin color.
  • By age 4, they can start to recognize basic racial stereotypes. This means that children who are ethnic minorities can experience indirect racism by watching what happens to their parents or on TV, as well as the direct interactions they have with other children at school or daycare, she said.
  • By ages 7 to 9, children start developing their own identity. As a result, they become aware of how society views their culture group and form more concrete understandings of how racism impacts them.

Parents should watch for signs that a child is struggling emotionally with discrimination or racist behavior. Signs, Dr. Zalzala noted, are different in youth than adults.

“While some youth may feel they can express their emotions verbally and seek support, if they are not in a space where talking about their feelings is welcomed, their emotions may come out in the form of disruptive behavior,” she said. “Rather than shaming those behaviors, it is crucial for parents, teachers and clinicians to explore what is contributing to them instead of focusing on how to reprimand these behaviors.”

Disruptive behavior could include physical aggression, isolation, unwillingness to talk, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, academic struggles or negative coping such as drug use and violence.

“The signs of struggling re different for everyone,” she said, “but being proactive and having conversations about race and the emotional impacts can serve as a moderator for preventing these troublesome responses.”

Other ways to help children:

  • Validating their feelings. Don’t try to discredit their experience or minimize racism’s negative impact. Validating their experience allows children to work through their feelings without shame and develop their own identity.
  • Improve your understanding of bias. This is especially true, Dr. Zalzala said, for teachers to help “dismantle systemic racism.” Bringing race into the classroom and talking about it with curiosity, while celebrating differences between people, can allow minority children to feel seen and appreciated.

“Failure to address racism will negatively impact all people and not just minority communities,” Dr. Saunders said. “One of the worst things we can do is pretend racism doesn’t exist. As a blended society, we need to focus on addressing the negative effects of race and identity.”

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