Study: Racism Affects Even Young Kids’ Mental and Behavioral Health

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Young children who experience discrimination are at heightened risk for mental health and behavior problems, but less so if they have a strong sense of racial and ethnic identity, a new study suggests.

Researchers at UC Riverside and Clark University, Mass., studied more than 170 children attending schools in Southern California’s Inland Empire. The children were recruited as part of a larger, ongoing study on resiliency in youth who face adversity growing up. More than half of the children were Latino, about 20 percent were black, and the rest mixed raced.

At age 7, the researchers explained the concept of discrimination in simple terms to the children, and asked if they’d ever felt discriminated against by peers, teachers or others because of their skin color, language, accent, culture or country of origin. More than half of the children reported such experiences.

A year later, the researchers asked the children to rate statements about their race and ethnicity, such as  “I have often talked to other people in order to learn more about my ethnic group,” and, “I understand pretty well what my ethnic background means to me.” Using a well-established scoring method, they rated the children’s level of ethnic identity. Then they compared that with separate assessments of each child’s mental and behavioral health.

Children who reported discrimination and had low ethnic-racial identity scores were at high risk for anxiety, depression, oppositional behavior and other mental health and behavior problems, the researchers found. However, among children with a strong sense of ethnic-racial identity, the effects of discrimination were muted, according to the report.

“I think it’s pretty convincing evidence that young children are experiencing and encoding experiences with discrimination in their schools, in their peer groups, and these experiences have significant negative implications for their health and wellbeing,” said Tuppett Yates, a UC Riverside psychology professor and co-author of the study.”At the same time, they are thinking about race and ethnicity…and potentially if we encourage their thinking about those issues we can help to promote their emergent ethnic-racial identity and equip them with a really important tool for combatting these negative effects.”

Yates said parents can help children build their sense of identity by talking with them about their family’s racial and ethnic background. At school, teachers can encourage children to share information about their cultures and origins, she said. White children can also benefit from understanding their family history and culture, she said.

Mayra Alvarez, president of The Children’s Partnership in Los Angeles, a group that advocates for policies that support children’s health, said the study findings highlight the importance of counteracting negative racial stereotypes and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media and society. The partnership has found, for example, that children from immigrant families in California are increasingly experiencing mental health problems as a result of the current political climate.

“I think one of the most important takeaways from the findings is the responsibility that each of us has to make a positive impression on a child, and make sure they feel valued, they feel validated and they feel loved and supported by the adults in their lives,” she said. “I think it’s on all of us to make sure every child feels as good as they can be regardless of their background.”

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