Our children are watching.
Last summer, they watched as communities protested the unjust police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and so many others, and they watched as these protesters were met with tear gas, mass arrests, and further police violence. Earlier this month, they watched as white supremacists attempted to overthrow our democracy and instill fear by attacking the U.S. Capitol.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the resulting economic hardships disproportionately impacting Black communities because of decades of racial inequities.
This exposure to constant violence—police violence, white supremacy, medical racism, poverty—takes a toll on children’s health and wellbeing. Even if children don’t experience COVID-19, police violence, or white supremacist attacks firsthand, “they’re identifying with the person who is experiencing it, who looks like them, so the trauma is vicarious,” says Dr. James Huguley in a Harvard Medicine article focused on the ways this year’s strife has been experienced by Black children and youth. Exposure to toxic stress can harm children’s healthy development and impact their sense of belonging and self-esteem. And the negative impacts on children’s physical and mental health can be long-lasting.
CDF Freedom Schools’ Dr. Kristal Moore Clemons explains that joining cultural enrichment programs like Freedom Schools and becoming involved in social action “will teach children a sense of community, encourage resilience, and show them how communicating can build better relationships.” Empowerment, a sense of community, and protective adult relationships can help children cope with stresses but our solutions need to be bolder and more proactive. As Professor Jake Shonkoff explains: “We really need to go upstream and address common sources of stress—poverty, racism, housing insecurity, and food insecurity—that pile up on families with young children.”
As we move towards accountability and welcome in the new administration, it’s time for bold solutions to dismantle systems of oppression and protect our children from sources of toxic stress like poverty, racism, and police violence.