Researcher Documents Benefits of Targeted Conversation in Helping Parents and Children Impacted by Discrimination

November 1, 2021 

Imagine a police stop. The African American woman behind the wheel is unsure about her responses to the officer, her anxiety intensifying.  The emotional impact from the encounter leaves her depressed, but what about her kids in the backseat? 

“Our research shows it’s not just the parent who is impacted by discrimination, it’s both parents and children,” explains Riana Elyse Anderson, a 2021 recipient of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences’ (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award.  She was nominated by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD).  

Discrimination, she explains, affects children over the lifespan.  Even children as young as eight can indicate an experience of discrimination. The encounter may trigger depression in the parent, which can lead to changes in parenting practices and thus the child’s well-being. Perhaps what is yet more critical is the child’s direct awareness of the discrimination. Anderson cites a correlation with drug and alcohol use over time, especially among adolescents. 

“There are no other variables that better explain why parents’ experiences of discrimination affects children other than the child being aware… It’s important that they have a place to unpack and talk about these things together.” 

Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson

“There are no other variables that better explain why parents’ experiences of discrimination affects children, other than the child being aware,” she says, citing four years of data involving hundreds of families. 

Conversations between parents and children that address both the experience of and awareness to discrimination, involving both parents and the children, can help reduce this stress and help families make sense of racial issues.  “It’s important that they have a place to unpack and talk about these things together.”  

The approach is critical, she explains, and with racism moving “amorphously,” she says there is no one-size-fits-all, no “5 tips” to give families on encounters with racism.  

“We’re trying to get folks moving into more cognitive and emotional discussions,” she says.  A therapist might ask: Did you feel confident when talking with police? Or: Did you have enough strategies to use when talking with the police? 

The bigger point, she says, is that the questions focus on whether the parents felt competent in their racial socialization – that they had the skills and confidence to handle the encounter and any stress it may have caused.  

Anderson recruited approximately 15 families for a pilot program in Philadelphia called EMBRace: Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race, focusing on racial socialization, coping and family functioning in the face of discrimination felt almost on a daily basis (check out their program website here). 

In her next implementation, she aims for a total of 40 families for the 5-session program.  Anecdotal evidence has been promising, “and eventually we’ll set up a questionnaire to get at whether [our program] is working better than other therapies or no therapies to reduce depression,” she says. 

Potential for Future Impact

  • Better understanding of how racial discrimination affects the development of children and youth, and what approaches can be taken to buffer the negative effects of discrimination
  • Development of a measure of racial socialization competency using psychometric testing 
  • Development of a recourse to help children and youth interpret and respond to instances of racial discriminations as they occur, through analyzing the impact of how caregiving adults have responded in the past. 

Riana Elyse Anderson is a recipient of the 2021 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). She is an assistant professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan and the developer and director of the EMBRace (Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race) intervention

See Dr. Anderson’s publications on her website here