Helping Children of Color Heal from Collective Trauma
Trauma manifests differently when it’s all around, all the time.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic: People across the globe have spent most of the year fearing for their lives, suffering the closures of businesses and community programs and mourning the losses of certainty, normality, safety, and security.
This year has taken a heavy emotional toll on people in a way that may permanently alter how they connect with others, process their feelings, and develop coping mechanisms in the future. These are the markers of collective trauma.
At the individual level, the psychological effects of trauma can be acute or long term, depending on a person’s experience and access to care. But at the community level, a complex and collective experience of trauma can lead to irreparable harm that lasts for generations.
For many people of color, this exposure to collective trauma is not new; in fact, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be predisposed to trauma and less likely to access treatment.
A significant factor of that predisposition is the racial dynamics within American culture and systems that allow people to inflict violence and brutality against people of color, which children of color witness on the news, at school, and in their own communities.
“It affects self-esteem and self-worth, especially when your skin color is weaponized against you,” said Dr. Gimel Rogers, faculty and associate director of Psychology@Pepperdine’s master of arts in psychology and clinical psychology programs. “All you did was wake up and go out of the house, and [you] don’t really understand why you're being hated.”
Children of color are particularly vulnerable because they’re still in early stages of psychological and moral development. They need support and attention when they’re a witness to violence and trauma—especially when it's happening to people who look like them.
“There are videos everywhere of police shootings of unarmed Black men,” said Dr. Layla Bonner, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Nashville, Tennessee. “But culturally, those stories have been passed down from generation to generation.”
Addressing collective trauma in children of color requires a comprehensive approach, including the affirmation of children’s experiences, support of their psychological development, and advocacy for the needs of their parents.
Use the links below to explore what collective trauma is, how it affects children of color, how to create safe spaces for them to express and process their reactions, and how to be allies to the parents who are already doing the work of guiding them.
Table of Contents
What Is Collective Trauma?
Collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions of a traumatic event that has affected an entire group, community or specific demographic. It differs from individual trauma because it’s part of a shared experience and the effects can last much longer than those of individual trauma, often passed down through generations.
Epigenetics (PDF, 1.2MB)—the study of how genetic expression is altered—shows that conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder can even be biologically inherited. Rogers said that can make children more susceptible to stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma throughout their life span.
Dr. Joy DeGruy coined post-traumatic slave syndrome to describe the unique generational, racial, and historical trauma inflicted upon Black communities in the United States and African diaspora. Because of the continued oppression of an entire race across generations, post-traumatic slave syndrome was the result of disenfranchised opportunities for care and treatment and is still presently affecting Black families in modern-day America.
“This country was built on oppressive systems,” Rogers said. “So something like bullying can affect a child of color more than a white student, because of everything else that it represents and everything else that comes with it.”
The Centers for Disease Control uses a social-ecological model to describe how different systems of trauma are connected. The image below illustrates how an individual racial trauma inflicted upon a person of color can be connected with other levels of trauma:
Individual: A person’s demographic data and personal history of trauma can compound and complicate their reactions to a traumatic event.
Relationship: A person’s closest relationships (family, peers, and intimate partners) influence their behavior and life experiences.
Community: The settings where people work, learn, play, and live can determine the trauma they’re exposed to and their ability to seek help.
Society: Social values and cultural norms influence the way a group responds to trauma and is able to help each other recover from it.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines on children and trauma, “nearly all children and adolescents express some kind of distress or behavioral change in the acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event. Although most return to baseline functioning, a substantial minority of children develop severe acute or ongoing psychological symptoms (including PTSD symptoms) that bother them, interfere with their daily functioning, and warrant clinical attention.”
Those reactions can differ based on a person’s experience and are often based on a person’s age or developmental stage, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Trauma Reactions and Symptoms by Age
- Fear of separation from parents or caregivers
- Frequent emotional tantrums
- Poor eating habits and weight loss
- Nightmares or trouble sleeping
- Regressive development like bed-wetting
Elementary School Children:
- Anxiousness or fear
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Nightmares or trouble sleeping
- Regression to bed-wetting or tantrums
Middle- and High-School Children:
- Feelings of depression or isolation
- Changes in appetite in either direction
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harming behaviors
- Unhealthy use of alcohol or drugs
- Issues with self-esteem and self-worth
While these are common reactions to acute trauma, Rogers said that when compounded by exposures to multiple traumas, these reactions can lead to vastly negative outcomes if left untreated.
"When you have a child with racial and oppressive experiences in conjunction with exposure to violence in the home, in the community, or being violated, physically, emotionally, and sexually, in a space that’s supposed to be safe,” she said, “that is where we're looking at complex trauma.”
She said complex trauma can lead to an overactive amygdala—the part of the brain’s limbic system responsible for emotions and fear-based reactions.
This can lead to clinically significant hypervigilance or “cultural paranoia,” a term that describes a feeling of mistrust and fear that comes from being oppressed and marginalized based on a person’s race. Children know “that things are different because they are being treated differently—because of their skin color, because of who they are,” Rogers said.
Bonner said that when a child is constantly in a fight, flight, or freeze mentality, there’s a negative psychological reaction that leads to poor mental health outcomes:
- Disrupted cortisol rhythms that affect stress, hunger, and anger
- Cognitive impairment and trouble focusing or processing instructions
- Expressions of emotions that come off as anger or behavioral issues
“If they're in school and they can't focus and concentrate, it may become a behavioral problem,” Bonner said. “This is why educators, in particular, need to have an understanding of racial trauma and its impact on the children they teach.”
How a Counselor or Therapist Can Help with Trauma Recovery
Children of color are at higher risk for exposure to collective trauma during their childhood because of racial and generational trauma. But they also experience more barriers to accessing care, as well as social determinants that complicate their mental health outcomes and trajectory for healing. Early detection and intervention from trusted adults and mental health professionals can help children recover from collective trauma as they move through stages of psychological and social development.
Experts at the APA say that when psychological reactions to trauma become disruptive and sustained over a long period of time, seeing a mental health professional is a good idea.
Tips for Finding a Counselor
Try meeting with different counselors before choosing one. “If you feel like you can share hard things with this person, that might be your cue that they're safe,” Bonner said. Trust, representation, and understanding are key parts of parents and their children feeling safe and ready to meet with a counselor.
Look for someone with a similar identity: “It's helpful if you can find someone that looks like you, but it's not always probable,” Bonner said. “At least look for someone who has experience counseling people of color.”
Make use of technology and virtual care: Though there may not be a counselor physically accessible, many organizations have begun to offer telehealth options for mental health care.
“People of color tend to terminate [care] early because sometimes we experience microaggressions and racism even in the therapeutic environment,” Bonner said. “And that is a result of the therapist’s lack of awareness and bias.”
Bonner said she encourages others to find a mental health professional who makes them feel validated and seen.
“If you don’t see my color, you don’t see my experience,” she said. “You don’t see how racism and discrimination have shaped my world.”
Where to Find a Mental Health Care Provider
- Open Path Collective
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Black Mental Health Alliance
- Loveland Foundation
- Latinx Therapy
- Therapy for Latinx: Latinx Therapist Directory
- Indian Health Service
- TIP 61 Behavioral Health Services for American Indians (PDF, 2.8MB)
- Asian American Psychological Association
- Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American (APISAA) Therapist Directory
- BIPOC Mental Health
For families who have never pursued mental health care before, it can be daunting to seek professional help: Fear of the unknown, of discrimination, and of social stigma are all common reasons that families of color are unable to access quality mental health care. But the more informed parents are ahead of time, the more comfortable their families may feel about receiving help from a qualified, culturally sensitive provider.
What to Expect from a Mental Health Professional:
Questions about family history or generational trauma: Counselors may ask about a child’s personal or family history to get a better understanding of specific traumatic experiences and mental health conditions that may run in the family.
Trauma-informed care: Counselors are trained to provide culturally sensitive, evidence-based trauma therapy techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, or other interventions that are designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Role-playing activities: Counselors may use playtime, games, or artistic activities that help children express their emotions or act out scenarios they’ve experienced.
Education about supporting your child: Counselors will spend time teaching parents about common responses to trauma for children and strategies they may be able to use at home.
Supporting Children Recovering from Collective Trauma
Collective trauma can lead people to finding a sense of meaning in their shared experience. According to an analysis of trauma published in Frontiers in Psychology, what starts as collective trauma “transforms into a collective memory and culminates in a system of meaning that allows groups to redefine who they are and where they are going.”
Family settings are often a natural place to share emotions safely and connect over shared experiences. Bonner said it’s helpful to be mindful of what makes each person feel safe and seen.
According to the Child Mind Institute, “kids often don’t express the distress they’re feeling in a way that’s easily recognizable—and they may mask their pain with behavior that’s aggressive or off-putting.”
Rogers and Bonner said creating a safe space to express feelings and concerns can help children process emotions with the guidance of an adult, whether that be their own parent, a family member, or another adult like a teacher, friend’s parent, or school psychologist.
How to Help Kids Process Emotions
Validate all emotions. Say “whatever you’re feeling is okay,” to let them know their natural reaction is valid and understandable.
Practice naming feelings. Help children grow their emotional intelligence by expanding their vocabulary of emotions and describing what each one feels like.
Model healthy expressions of emotion. Say “I feel that, too,” for validation, and then show an example of a safe way to express that emotion, like doing physical activity, writing a letter, or offering a hug.
Support calming behaviors. Practice identifying things that make you both feel calm, like specific music, food, spaces, or visuals and talk about how to access those things during a moment of need.
It’s likely that as kids age, they’re going to hear or discuss topics of trauma while they’re at school, places of worship, community gatherings, or extracurricular activities. Rogers and Bonner said it’s crucial that kids have the support from adults in these environments to process their reactions in a safe and healthy way.
Safe spaces are shaped by making expectations clear. Rogers said kids need to know they will be validated and their identities will be accepted before they may be willing to share vulnerable thoughts or experiences.
“You are responsible for holding the dialogue, particularly if you're not a person of color,” she said. “It is your duty to open the discussion and say, ‘How are you feeling today? Is there anything going on that you want to talk about? How many parents have talked to you all about the news?’”
Adults can take specific steps to let children of color know they are safe, welcome, and visible. Rogers and Bonner offered strategies for establishing safety and creating a culture of inclusivity.
Strategies for Creating Safe Spaces for Children of Color
Regulate your own emotions. “Can you calmly talk about race?” Bonner asked. Being able to regulate your own emotions about difficult topics will help children feel calm and safe in your presence.
Put up posters that support inclusion. Featuring imagery and ideas that promote inclusion can give students a sense of belonging and cue that they are welcome.
Create assignments that are inclusive of many identities. Have students read books by authors of color and teach history lessons that include communities of color.
Assign writing prompts or discussions that encourage reflections. “That’s the bottom line that we want to teach our children,” Rogers said. “To not hold their emotions in.” Have students practice naming and processing emotions verbally, either confidentially or with peers.
Allow students to access a safe space. This might be the classroom of a specific teacher they trust or a physical space that feels calming to them.
Encourage students to take a timeout. If students can self-identify when they’re feeling overwhelmed, they can leave and come back when they’re ready.
Establish an anonymous reporting system. Let students know they can safely report a racist incident and that it will be taken seriously through investigation.
Recruit more teachers of color. Having teachers who reflect and affirm the identities of students in their classrooms helps promote kinship, confidence, and safety for students.
“Empowerment is so important.” Bonner said. “It promotes agency and competence for children of color, no matter what the age.”
Being an Ally to Parents of Color
“It is not people of color’s job to educate non–people of color,” Rogers said.
Parents of color are already very familiar with having talks about race and trauma with their children, but white parents can take cues from their leadership and sensitivity when learning how to support and guide children through experiences of trauma and racial socialization.
Tips for Being an Ally to Parents of Color
- Text or call to check in and let them know you’re thinking about them.
- Offer help in a time of crisis or trauma, and respect when the answer is “no”
- Observe boundaries about opinions and communication styles.
- Educate other white peers in your social circle about racism and allyship.
- Actively talk to your own children about race and inclusion.
- Practice empathy but refrain from over-identification or centering yourself.
- Ask questions out of curiosity, not judgment or accusation.
Being an ally means accepting that you have to take an active role in racial socialization of your own children or family members. Be accountable to educating others in your community on allyship, too.
“Everybody plays a part here,” Bonner said. “If we can create narratives of vulnerability, we can create narratives of resilience.”
Additional Resources about Collective Trauma
- Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting, APA
- How to find help through seeing a psychologist, APA
- EMBRace, Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race, The Racial Empowerment Collaborative
- Racism and Violence: How to Help Kids Handle the News, Child Mind Institute
- List of language/phrases to begin talking about race and trauma with a client, This Therapy Life
- Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Disasters and Other Traumatic Events: What Parents, Rescue Workers, and the Community Can Do, National Institutes of Health
Citation for this content: OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the Online Master of Psychology program from Pepperdine University.