By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Trauma is generally associated with war, mass shooting and other fatal or near-death experiences. However, Black children living in underserved communities experience traumatic events daily, which has generally gone unnoticed by society, according to Dr. Raquel Martin, a licensed clinical psychologist.
Many children living in underserved communities are students who have to navigate drug dealers, gang members “just hanging out” and/or at least one drug house on the way to school and back. Some might have to pass an area where someone was recently shot and/or the lot where a body was found. Often, these children are mourning the absence of an incarcerated parent or older sibling. They may also live in abusive homes or have been displaced from their abusive homes into the foster care system.
How common are these scenarios?
Dallas has the third highest child poverty rate among the major cities across the United States, according to the Child Poverty Action Lab. Moreover, 40% of Black children in Dallas are living in poverty, according to the city of Dallas Child Poverty Indicator. Most of these children live in underserved communities, with a large percentage absorbing the Southern Sector, according to the city.
For those children, growing up in an underserved community has commonly been related to worse physical, social, emotional and educational outcomes, according to the CPI, with the city showing many of these communities emersed in high crime rates, drug abuse, violence, food insecurity, etc.
Black children and chronic trauma
The fact is, these events are often traumatic on children, and children can experience various types of traumas: acute, chronic and complex, according to Martin.
“Acute is like a single stressful or dangerous event. Chronic is like prolonged exposure so you know, like neighborhood exposure and stuff like that. And complex is what I’m more so used to seeing, and it is exposure to multiple traumatic events,” she explained.
“With Black people, the complex trauma is not only just the events that we constantly think about – like domestic abuse or community violence – we also need to think about systemic injustices, racism, household conflict. That’s something that we experienced as Black people anyway. And I don’t think it gets brought up enough about the fact that just being Black, we are dealing with complex trauma. That’s just what it is.”
She explained that system injustices in school – like Black children being disciplined at a higher rate and more harshly than White children, which leads to lower grades and less achievements, according to the American Phycological Association – can add to the trauma children experience daily.
Even with all of this extra trauma, children still have to go through the everyday trials that the average person experiences just being human, such as waking up at a certain time every morning, getting dressed and getting to school on time, getting homework completed each night, completing chores or other family responsibilities.
These may seem simple unless: the child has to wake up at a certain time after he/she was up all night listening to shooting outside his home; the child has to hurry to get dressed and also has the burden of making sure their siblings are dressed and ready; getting to school on time means dodging drug dealers, bullies or strangers parked outside the neighbor’s house each day; getting homework completed each night and completing chores or other family responsibilities must be done on an empty stomach.
To add insult to injury, children may be inundated with traumatic news – such as continually hearing or reading about police officers shooting unarmed Black men and women, a mass shooting, a murder in their own neighborhood, a pandemic or a natural disaster – through news broadcasts and social media. While these events affect adults, the affect they have on children could be multiplied by their ability to understand and inability to cope, Martin stated.
“You can be over informed. And I think a lot of all of us are,” she added. “You want to stay informed to hear about details, but how many times do you have to watch someone that looks like you take their last breath?”
She went on to explained that, once a child becomes traumatized by the police and they no long see them as one who serves and protects, they may lose that feeling of being protected from the bad things around them.
Children that experience multiple traumas at home, at school and throughout their community, can experience depression, anxiety and PTSD or even complex PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could also include:
- Repetitive thoughts of the events.
- Re-experiencing the event or acting it out repeatedly.
- Reoccurring nightmares and sleep disturbances.
- Difficultly talking or hearing about the event.
- Memories of the event cause mood disturbances
- Constant and intense moodiness, sadness or fear
- Irritability and angry outbursts
- Continuously on alert
- Easily startled
- Expressing or feeling helplessness and/or hopelessness
- Becoming withdrawn after the incident
- Denying the event happened
- Feeling numb or no long expressing emotions.
- Avoiding places or people associated with the event
When to seek help
Some adults may overlook or might not be aware of a child’s need to be in therapy, she said. Sometimes parents/caregivers don’t realize how children process the world around them. Often adults think, “What do children have to be concerned about?” Additionally, she said, sometimes Black people think if one believes in God or their faith is strong enough, they won’t need outside help or they shouldn’t be depressed or anxious in the first place.
Everyone has mental health, which can become unhealthy after dealing with trauma or multiple traumas. She noted that therapy isn’t a one-time or cure-all activity, but it’s also not a lifetime commitment.
“Therapy doesn’t have to be forever. I think that’s another thing,” Martin said, adding that – just like medical treatments are necessary in order to maintain good physical health, therapy is important for maintaining good mental health.”
She also stated that many children experiencing trauma due to environmental trauma may continue to experience the traumas. However, the goal is to provide children with better tools to cope, survive and recover over time.
It is important that parents, other caregivers and teachers know when a child is having trouble dealing with traumatic events or difficulty recovering, Martin emphasized.
“One thing to look out for, especially, a lot of times they look at it as like what they call oppositional or defiant behavior,” she explained. No child walks around wanting to be angry. But with some children, they don’t know how to appropriately express their feelings – like sadness, guilt or shame.
“I describe it as like the anger iceberg; like the Titanic sank because what was below the water not above it, because above they thought they were good. They were like ‘This thing is small. I got this.’”
She recalled that they thought the iceberg was small because of what they saw on the surface. However, it was the overwhelming size of the matter that took down the massive “unsinkable” ship.
“I always say the anger is above the water. But below it you have shame, you have guilt, your trauma,” she added. “So pay attention to the angry cues; like pay attention to why they’re upset. Children don’t automatically jump to them being oppositional or defiant. Sometimes it’s trauma and sometimes it’s really some kids don’t understand what’s going on around them.
She said that children are more likely to express themselves through actions rather than words – especially Black children because they learn early that expressing themselves emotionally could be seen as a weakness. And being seen as weak could be dangerous.
“Specifically with Black people, we have been brought up in and generationally shown that any certain kind of emotion can lead to our death, like, any kind of fear, any show of weakness – and not just with people inside, not just with work, but school too,” she examined. “So now we’re not going to always know how to express emotions in a way that can be healthy because, culturally, we might have to keep a straight face even when we’re scared for our life. So, it’s important to understand that that doesn’t just happen with adults. We were all children at one point in time and we witnessed this, whether it was with us or whether it was with our family.”
She said it’s important that children who experience trauma – especially multiple traumas – receive counseling by a therapist who is familiar with their type of trauma. It’s important for the therapist to know the right questions to ask, especially those that go beyond the surface. It’s equally important that the child be comfortable with the therapist that they are working with.
Everyone should do a consultation session with their therapists first, she said, explaining that most will offer a free consultation. Some may be 15 minutes while others may be a 30-minute session that will allow them to get to know each other. She said, it’s like the mind is a kingdom and before you give someone the keys and let them move in, you need to get to know them and see if you like them. Parents/caregivers can ask them questions about specific things, like what happens to a child during a crisis? Have they worked with someone the same type of issue? Do they offer a sliding scale?
Many children living in underserved communities cannot afford private therapy. However, Dallas Independent School District does offer resources for mental health care. Parents and other caregivers who are concerned about their child or children exhibiting mental or emotional disturbances can contact their school’s counselor get more information. More information on mental health care for children can also be found at https://www.metrocareservices.org or https://www.hhs.texas.gov/services/mental-health-substance-use/childrens-