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Trial & Tribulation Bonus Episode: How do we protect children from racial trauma?

By Kevin Dragseth

With media that spans the spectrum from reality shows that depict cops stopping, detaining and arresting people of color, to the endless news and social media cycles surrounding the police killing of George Floyd and other Black people, children are sometimes exposed to words and images that they can't understand. And yet, those words and images can have a lasting impact on their young hearts and minds nonetheless.

With Minnesota's communities of color experiencing a heightened storm of racialized trauma over the last year, we talked to child psychology expert Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya about what parents can do to both shield and reassure the young ones in their lives. She also spent some time discussing the stigma that often prevents Black men and women from seeking help for mental health issues, and how to overcome some of those historically rooted obstacles.


Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Child Psychologist:

Black folks and people of color, we don't like talking about "mental" anything. If it's got "mental" in it, we don't want to hear about it. If pain and suffering and trials and tribulations have gotten us to the place where we are downtrodden and broken. Don't you think we have a right now, to be well?

Kyeland Jackson, Reporter & Host:

Hey y'all. I want to talk about us for a moment. For generation after generation, we've pushed forward with the strength and knowledge that's been passed down to us by our ancestors. We've dealt with a lot, but the news of today brings new traumas and new challenges. Our kids are constantly exposed to stories and media that triggers our trauma. Our unresolved pains are being passed down to them. And it's hard enough to take care of ourselves through this COVID pandemic, let alone to take care of others. So here's the question. What are five ways to protect children from racial trauma?

Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya:

The best things parents can first do is recognize their own trauma. And if it's hard for, my rule of thumb is if it's hard, hard for you to do deal with it, just multiply that and understand that it's harder for your child. But in some ways, even if we try to shield our children from TV or radio or any other outlet where they might see it they still connect with other children. And children will make up their own story or scenario. And it won't be anything close to being accurate. And so some Black parents overexpose children in a sense to make it accurate. They overexpose their children to adult information that they shouldn't have. And they use adult words that children shouldn't understand and won't understand.

And so parents, I ask them to one, check their own trauma and use that as a barometer. And if they are separated from their own trauma and they're only in their heads, then they need to just use their head to realize their brain is developed and their child's brain is not. And then you can explain what happened in a developmentally appropriate way to your little children.

As they get up to elementary, junior high, high school, even college age. You talk to them in a developmentally-appropriate way that, that fits their, their vocabulary. That's the first thing and the second thing.

The third thing they need to do is when shows like that come on TV, don't have your children looking at trauma, traumatic images over and over and over and over and over. You may want to catch every news outlet for the next five hours, but you need to find something else for your child to do, besides sit there under you looking at what you're looking at. So that's another thing. And because we have parents who say, "I want to keep it real, he's going to find out eventually," let he him or her or they find out eventually when it's developmentally appropriate for them to find it out. 'Cause your job is to tell them in an appropriate way what it means to be safe, how they need to stay safe. But more importantly, you need to tell them that you're going to try your best to keep them safe. Because just like I talked about earlier, seeing someone else victimized, the first thing children say is, "What's going to happen to me?" So parents, they may not even say it out loud. They're saying it on the inside, you betcha. So what we want parents to learn to say is to nurture and comfort their children and say, "I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. Mom's here, dad's here. I'm going to be here for you." So that helps them with their children.

And then teaching their children coping mechanisms like deep breathing exercises, or count to 10 when you're mad, or sing happy birthday four or five times in your head if somebody's bothering you and you don't want to push them off the swing. You know, there's a lot of different coping mechanisms parents can teach children. And one that all the, I have not seen a child yet in my practice of over 40 years, who doesn't like balloon blowing. So even if they don't have a real balloon, we teach parents to teach them to go. And as they do it, they see the balloon. We get them to close their eyes and they, and believe it or not, you can ask the child, "What color is it?" And they'll tell you what color their balloon is. So using the strengths that babies and adults and teenagers have, and using them as a vehicle to lead them to their own skill-building and coping mechanisms and their wellness. So that's what I would say to parents.

And if it gets that your child is losing sleep, regressing, wetting in the bed or being more clingy than normal, and it goes on more than two or three weeks, if it goes on for four or five weeks, then I would say, seek professional support so that you can learn some skills to help your child and your child can learn some skills to help themselves.

Kyeland Jackson:

So we've got the tools to help out the next generation, but we have to be honest with ourselves here. Stigma from our religious communities has prevented healing within our families. That has to be addressed for many of us to move forward.

Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya:

The idea of stigma for Black folks is really based deeply in our spiritual beliefs. And let me tell you what I mean by that. We used to believe that if anyone had some form of an emotional problem or a mental health disorder, that they were possessed by the devil. That that is why they were having bipolar disorder or ADHD. It was an ADHD demon or something like, that's what I've heard parents say. So our, our healing is very much linked to our idea of spirituality. And so one of the stigmas of course around mental illness is that you're possessed. And that's not something to be proud of. So what it has taken on my side is that people, they even did a study looking at Black people and our ideas of how to seek help. And one of the first places we would go if we do have a problem is we'll talk to our friends, our family, our neighbor, and our pastors. And some of the pastors in Minneapolis and St. Paul, they're very educated on mental illnesses and, and wellness issues. And so they preach from their podium, from the, during their sermons, that it's okay to get mental health support. When they say it then somehow that helps break down the stigma.

Another way that we help parents break down the stigma is to recognize that we are in various areas, various levels of wellness. That we are more or less well. Black folks and people of color, we don't like talking about "mental" anything. If it's got "mental" in it we don't want to hear about it. So most of the time I talk about African-centered wellness. That you can, we all have an uncle Joe who is leave him alone during the family reunion. Give him his plate and leave him alone little bit. And so in our, in our discussions we talk about our right to be well. If pain and suffering and abuse and trials and tribulations have gotten us to the place where we are down-trodden and broken and harmed and hurting, don't you think we have a right now to be well? Haven't we already paid the price through our pain? We've done enough in that area. We've contributed enough to the world with our pain. Now we've earned the right to be well. And we have to fight it because those internal thought processes, our own self-talk tells us, "Oh we don't deserve it. Or we don't own our body, or, or we don't deserve good things. And we don't deserve to get help."

And the second part about that piece of that trajectory toward wellness is that what they don't understand is that psychologists and social workers and marriage and family therapists and general therapists, even psychiatrists, that our whole job is to help you access your strengths to be well. And to teach you skills. It's like going to class, you learn new skills. Like I was telling you about blowing up a balloon. It seems simple. But if you teach people how to access some of their natural innate abilities, and you turn the volume up on their resilience, people will change. They will choose to change. And so when we talk about stigma, I let people know, one, they have a right to be well. And they have a right to understand that, that you don't have to be talking to light bulbs to seek the support of a mental health professional. If you are talking to them, that's fine. We can help you too, but most people don't have that problem.

And so we teach parents to overcome that stigma just because by, by our rights of being here and having suffered, just by that, we have a right to overcome whatever obstacles somebody wants to put in front of us saying that we can't get the help we deserve. So that's the way I help people overcome stigma, by educating them that it's a teaching process, by giving them courage in their spirits that God made me just like he made the physicians and medicine and he, they, and if they're coming to see me or they're seeing a doctor who is a psychiatrist who gave them medicine, don't turn your, don't think that you're turning your back on God by asking a human being. Because that's again, one of the things that the research said is that we think we're turning our back on God when we ask for help from a human being. So I say God sent me, he gave me these skills. Don't you think God uses me just like he's using other people to do? All of us have different gifts. And so I, I can translate it to them that what I want them to do is pray that it works.

Kyeland Jackson:

Soon it'll be our turn to pass what we've learned to the next generation. With self care, and with some of Dr. Bravada's advice, that knowledge could build a better future for tomorrow's young people. Take care of yourselves. And until next time y'all, peace and love.

Otto Bremer HP

This story is part of the digital storytelling project Racism Unveiled, which is funded by grants from the Otto Bremer Trust and HealthPartners.

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