Racial stress is real and it can have serious consequences. Here's what it is, how it impacts my life, and how parents can help children navigate it.

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An image of a young boy playing.
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"Look, Mommy! I'm white just like you," my 6-year-old said while placing his hand next to mine for comparison. He confidently continued, "and G and Daddy are Black!" because his sister and dad have a browner complexion.

Here it was—my son's first signaling that race was a categorical "us/them" thing. It led to a short conversation about the many hues of Blackness in my family because we are, in fact, all Black. My literal son, however, quickly moved on and left me stuck with a million feelings—including racial stress.

I know this type of stress well as it's the subtext to my 40-something years on this earth. As with most people of color in America, it's the result of lifelong, regular race-related experiences that are big and small, overt and covert, real and perceived; experiences that are frequently worsened by dismissal, gaslighting, avoidance, normalization, and more. Like any type of stress, it can impact everyone differently and take up much-needed bandwidth to manage care and live a healthy life.

The Black Parent Experience in America

From the moment my son was born, we made sure to socialize him in his Blackness, but I wondered when we would need to begin walking down this particular path. It starts with my son being seen as sweet and adorable by the world now, but he will be viewed as a serious threat to other's safety and well-being in a few short years. His relationship with racial stress has already started, perhaps subconsciously, and it will really kick into high gear when that shift in public perception occurs. This moment is inevitable and heartbreaking. While I should be grateful the journey started subtly and to him, wasn't a big deal, it was an enormous milestone moment for me.

The anticipation of all of this, the worry behind it, the heavy notion that he was getting on the race roller coaster and would never be able to get off for the rest of his life was overwhelming. Every parent of a Black child carries this weight to some degree, creating stress and anxiety that can only be described as palpable. Compounding our reality is extensive research, news, and experiences that continually remind us that despite our joy and accomplishments, our ability to thrive fully and even our lives are in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

According to Charles Adams, co-founder and managing partner of Lion's Story, a nonprofit working to help people identify, process, and prepare for racially-stressful situations, "To be born in America and recognized, labeled, and socialized as Black often means you must move through and think in two (or more) dimensions. One is the actual lived experience, and the other is your anticipated and past experiences that may be filled with racial stress, actual or perceived danger, and second-guessing."

It is exhausting, as if I've just finished sprinting a mile but I'm still expected to think clearly, perform regularly, all while being blindfolded and wearing earplugs. It's nearly impossible and an all-consuming heavy experience that many have heroically navigated for generations.

Racial Stress Can Impact All Kids in School

The conversation with my son made me wonder when he would notice he's in a school where there aren't a lot of Black students, if he hasn't already, and what kind of racial stress that might cause him. Racial stress can impact a students' ability to "fully and freely engage" in school and lead to social isolation and loss of leadership opportunities, according to Sarah Huss, director of human development at a K-12 school in Los Angeles. A big reason is stereotype threat. "Students fear their actions or words will confirm their teachers' and peers' racial stereotypes, so they are left to consciously and unconsciously self-monitor on a regular basis, hijacking their focus on academic and social tasks that are fundamental to healthy cognitive and psychological development," says Huss.

It also harms their ability to form healthy relationships with teachers, and research shows positive student-teacher relationships benefit students' long-term health. "We know that trusting relationships with teachers is the number one predictor of academic success, and yet, racial stress serves to inhibit teachers and students from forming these bonds," says Huss. "White teachers, fearful of saying 'the wrong thing' often compensate by keeping their brown and Black students at arm's length instead of investing the necessary emotional energy in developing authentic connection."

This type of stress, albeit not at the same level, isn't only felt by Black children; it's also felt by other races in different ways. "White children experience racial stress when they hear a derogatory comment and don't know what to say—they know it's wrong, but they don't know how to interrupt racial bias," says Elizabeth Denevi, Ph.D., associate director of Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative (East Ed) and co-founder of the educational blog and podcast, Teaching While White. "White children can also feel guilt and shame about being white, and those feelings can inhibit cross-racial friendships and connections."

The reality is race is a part of living in America and when you're born here, go to school here, parent here, and work here, no matter what color you are, there's no escaping it. Many try to avoid it, deny its existence and the depths of its impact, but it's always there woven into the fabric of everyday life.

How Parents Can Ease Racial Stress

The importance of talking with children about race is fortunately becoming a mainstream conversation. Babies start to recognize difference as early as 6 months old and begin to form beliefs, which means talking to children early is imperative. In doing so, they can begin to understand that race is something to be discussed and why and how it can pervasively impact life in myriad ways.

Dr. Denevi reiterates, "White parents need to make sure their children don't think race is just something that children of color have. They have a race, too, and need to see how they are connected to the long legacy of white people who have stood with people of color to challenge racism. They need an anti-racist white identity not rooted in shame, but in an understanding of racism as a system that can be challenged and interrupted."

But if you're a white parent, how do you effectively talk to your child and help them navigate their relationship with race and racial stress when you might still feel shame, guilt, and fear and want to avoid the whole topic altogether? Or, if you're a Black parent or parent of color, how do you do this if you haven't even processed and dealt with possible anger and anxiety around the subtle and not so subtle ways race has impacted your life?

You can't.

As the most powerful teacher in your child's life, you are doing yourself and your child a disservice if you aren't also examining your own relationship with race and any associated stress it causes. Unaddressed, it can impact how you show up for your child and how you guide them in their race-related experiences. Consistent journaling, reading books, listening to podcasts, therapy, and having candid conversations with trusted friends and family are just a few great ways to delve into understandings of race and subsequent feelings. Regardless of the approach, the most important thing is to make sure that reflection and learning is ongoing in some fashion because race is a pervasive, multi-layered construct throughout everyday American life.

Actively modeling this type of introspection about race and using that awareness to manage racial stress helps parents teach children this type of learning is necessary, empowering, healthy, and lifelong.

The Bottom Line

Racial stress is real, and educating children about it and teaching them to cope in healthy ways is also an opportunity for parents to learn and grow. It's not enough for parents to simply focus on the ways in which race may show up in their children's lives—they have to also consider the many ways it has shown up in their own. Understanding race and learning to manage racial stress is an important part of being healthy, parenting, and preparing children to thrive.