Racial Trauma Causes Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, but Post-traumatic Growth Is Real

For Black families, discriminatory racial encounters are inevitable but according to new research on post-traumatic growth, it doesn’t have to end there.

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Claudia Germain, a school principal from Westbury, New York, recalls the discrimination her daughter, Tyler, now 24 years old, faced in school. "I can remember when my daughter was in second grade, a group of Caucasian girls told my daughter she could not sit with them because her hair was not straight," says Germain. Tyler was a new student in a new neighborhood and being excluded because she was Black was painful. Germain felt for her. "I felt that I put her in a bad position by moving to this new neighborhood," she says. It is something that still hurts.

Even though encounters like Tyler's are commonplace, the emotional injuries they cause can have harmful mental health impacts. They are defined as race-based trauma and can cause symptoms like those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—anger, sadness or loss of hope, and intrusive thoughts of the events. And racial trauma can affect Black families for years.

Trauma doesn't have to be the end of the story, though. Though it can be a catalyst for pain and suffering, it is evident that trauma can also create a space for growth and transformation. Particularly for Black families, who experience it regularly, racial trauma can be an avenue for positive transformation for parents and children.

According to a 2019 study in American Psychologist, discriminatory racial encounters (DREs) are a reality for over 90% of Black adults and children in America. They can be anything from individual interactions, like racial profiling, or the bullying in school Tyler experienced, to systemic occurrences, like racist real estate practices or exclusionary hiring processes. The connecting link is that people experience overt or subtle racism that is taxing to their well-being. These events occur on many levels—through interpersonal interactions, institutions and systems, first-hand or vicariously.

Constant racial trauma affects those who experience it in troubling ways. It has been linked to anxiety, depression, cardiovascular problems, immunological problems and sleep concerns. It can be physiologically exhausting to actively respond to constant racial threats and can lead to rumination, anger, emotional suppression or avoidance. For Black children who are developing, racial trauma can change the way they see the world.

Given these high stakes, modeling how to cope with and heal from racial trauma can feel incredibly challenging for parents. However, there is room and space for growth for Black families in the advent of these inevitable events.

Learning Just How Strong We Are

Dr. Dawnsha Mushonga, Ph.D., professor of health and human services at the University of Baltimore, likens post-traumatic growth to the transformation of a butterfly, explaining the importance of the struggle in the cocoon that gives butterflies the wings to eventually fly. "Similarly," Dr. Mushonga suggests, "some individuals learn just how strong they are when faced with adversity."

Post-traumatic growth can occur after a variety of traumatic experiences, such as loss, illness, and abuse, and it happens for a relatable reason. "Growth is likely to occur when an individual comes to the realization that their life is no longer the same after the trauma and that their previous ways of thinking and behaving are no longer helpful." Importantly, post-traumatic growth is not the same as resilience, which is about "bouncing back to normal" after something traumatic occurs. When it comes to post-traumatic growth, a struggle is required to move beyond where they used to be.

Post-traumatic growth is understudied in Black communities. Typically, this growth is seen in a greater appreciation of life, stronger interpersonal relationships, increased personal strength, spiritual growth and new possibilities. Dr. Mushonga explains that spirituality is fundamental in Black communities, and a great example of post-traumatic growth, where we see a stronger dependence on faith during hard times. Still, she emphasizes that how people in Black communities experience growth differs from person to person.

Encouraging Growth, Teaching Self-Love

Parents can think about post-traumatic growth as a way to help children become more resilient than they would've been through countering the inevitable experience of racism. Dr. Mushonga says "racial socialization," or the messages children receive about race from close family members, teaches children to navigate the world, interpreting and dealing with racism.

"Having conversations with Black children about their background, culture, and achievements from members of their racial group will help them to feel more positive about themselves and the group to which they belong," says Dr. Mushonga. For young Black children, reading books with Black characters might initiate conversations about race which can be extremely useful.

When racist encounters occur, Dr. Mushonga discusses several important strategies that allow children to reflect on these traumatic experiences and grow from them. First, positive affirmations like "you are smart" or "you are beautiful" can increase self-esteem and shift their focus from the negative encounters.

Secondly, it is important to give children the space to ask questions and process racist events. Children may struggle with expressing their feelings and experiences, and so it is important to attend to what they say and don't say, and their nonverbal behaviors. Engaging in simple conversations about their day, Dr. Mushonga explains, can "reveal information about their interactions with others."

Validating children's experiences is crucial, reminding them that they matter, although the world may sometimes treat them otherwise. It can help for parents to share their own experiences and coping skills, given they are age-appropriate.

According to Dr. Mushonga, coping strategies like deep breathing, meditation, yoga and journaling are particularly useful. And parents shouldn't be afraid of seeking out professional help to manage negative thoughts and emotions, if necessary. Finally, parents need to be aware that children are likely to model their behaviors and responses to stress. Sometimes, actions can be more important than words.

Mom and principal Claudia Germain sees the result of the seeds she planted in her daughter Tyler now that she is older and independent. Years ago, Germain communicated to Tyler's teacher that the behavior was unacceptable. Her teacher addressed it with the girls and gave Tyler the support she needed moving forward. Germain was an advocate for her family, making it her business to always "communicate with their teachers and the schools on a consistent basis."

As her children became young adults, they demonstrated the self-advocacy that Germain modeled for them long ago. "I would like to think that them knowing I would support them helped them to advocate for themselves and others," says Germain. They "[joined] organizations and [created] avenues to share similar experiences and to responsibly address these racial injustices, whether through campus forums, walk-outs, sit-ins, writing articles in the campus newsletter, or meeting with university leaders."

She says "learning to advocate for yourself and others is a great form of personal growth."

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