The role of discrimination in parental depression and child emotional problems among low-income Black families

How to address societal risks in our most vulnerable families: Psychology students' perspective.

By Riana Elyse Anderson, MA, and Saida B. Hussain, MA

Riana Elyse Anderson Saida B. HussainDepression can be a debilitating experience for those facing the symptoms associated with the diagnosis. Although the literature primarily focuses on the individual’s experience with depression, recent studies have helped to elucidate the impact of depressed parents on family systems (Brenner & Salovey, 1997; Silk, Shaw, Forbes, Lane, & Kovacs, 2006). In addition to symptomatology associated with depression (e.g., loss of appetite, lack of sleep, low mood, etc.), maternal depression — particularly as a result of economic hardship — has been associated with poorer parenting practices (Arellano, Harvey, & Thakar, 2012; McLoyd, 1990). While various stressors impact parents from all walks of life, culturally specific stressors (e.g., discrimination) may additively and negatively be associated with parental well-being (Lee & Ahn, 2013). Although a growing body of research has investigated the associations between discrimination, maternal depression and child psychosocial well-being (McNeil, McKoy, Brantley, Fincham, & Beach, 2013; Simons et al., 2002), few studies have provided a comprehensive approach to understanding mechanisms by which children, especially ethnic-minority youth, can be influenced by their parent’s depression. 

Prior research has provided evidence that the affective states of the parent (e.g., depression) may contribute to more dysfunctional parenting practices, and, in turn, be associated with negative child outcomes (Belsky, 1984). Belsky (1984), Garcia Coll and colleagues (1996), and McLoyd (1990) also note that the contextual source of stress is important to consider when understanding how parental depression effects parenting. Low-income Black families have several sources of stress that they are likely facing, including financial, racial and systemic pressures, which may be unique from stressors considered “daily-hassles” for other families (McLoyd, Hill, & Dodge, 2005; Ungar, 2013). Given that low-income Black mothers have been found to experience more depressive symptoms than their Hispanic and White peers (O’Neil, Wilson, Shaw, & Dishion, 2009), it is conceivable that a confluence of financial and racial problems may be especially devastating for these parents. Of particular interest to us is the role of racial discrimination in low-income Black mothers’ depression and their parenting. Understanding this relationship may inform intervention development and clinical services for this often underserved population.

Pathways to Emotional Pain

In our work, we have found that racial discrimination predicts higher levels of parental depressive symptoms, which in turn predicts poorer parenting practices, which in turn predicts internalizing problems for young Black children (Anderson, Hussain, Wilson, Shaw, Dishion, & Williams, under review). Numerous studies support the deleterious nature of discrimination on the psychological well-being of the person reporting discriminatory events, particularly for Black adults (Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone, & Zimmerman, 2003; Williams, Chapman, Wong, & Turkheimer, 2000). However, very few studies investigate how discrimination may be harmful to the children of the participants in this research. While the concept of racial socialization — or the developmental process by which parents shape their children’s knowledge about their own race as it relates to personal and group identity, intergroup and inter-individual relationships, and position in the social hierarchy (Thornton, Chatters, Taylor, & Allen, 1990) — has been informative regarding the more deliberate socializing processes that occur in families of varying races and ethnicities, studies are less clear with regard to processes related to families with younger children. Parents experiencing discriminatory events, may be less able to express their disappointment, frustration or pain to their children, who are often too young to understand problems associated with race (Quintana, 1998). This lack of communication may in turn be related to internalization by the parent and child, given the direct associations found between discrimination and parent/child internalizing problems within our work.

Why Does a Focus on Discrimination Matter?

The media has been peppered with high profile cases that evoke nuances of discrimination and racist remarks (e.g., Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis’ shootings, Richard Sherman’s educational attainment, Madonna’s use of the “N” word, etc.), and there is often heated discussion among adults in the aftermath. Research has been limited regarding the impact of discriminatory practices on children (Simons et al., 2002); however, this research adds to literature indicating that through proximal processes, children’s internalizing problems are associated with discrimination reported by parents and other community members. Not only can discrimination be harmful through familial processes — negatively impacting both parental depression and parenting practices — it is also negatively related to child emotional well-being more directly. 

Impact of discriminatory practices on children

What Can We Do?

Our work indicates a need to consider how to effectively bolster components of familial interventions with low-income Black families to address issues of discrimination directly. The direct association between parent’s reports of discrimination and child emotional problems conveys the need for additional clinical and intervention responses that address more than just depressive symptoms and parenting struggles. Community interventions focusing on discrimination and policies implemented by local municipalities that attempt to decrease discriminatory practices should be investigated with regard to their effectiveness, particularly with respect to child emotional well-being. Community Based Participatory Research and clinicians within at-risk communities should engage local leaders to determine whether discrimination is seen as a problem, and assess ways that the communities themselves feel solutions can be reached. Working collaboratively with those who are experiencing the effects of discriminatory practices not only enables participants to contribute to their well-being, but also informs the practitioners of additional ways that their interventions can be adapted to account for the needs of community members.


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