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How Racism Harms Children

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida
This post was written to recognize  National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 8) and Children’s Mental Health Week. Learn more on Facebook at

As much as we’d like to make it a thing of the past, racism is still very much with us. While we may think of racism as something that happens when one person discriminates against another, racism is also systemic—that is, it’s part of how our society functions every day. How does it affect children and teens from minority backgrounds to grow up in this atmosphere?

A recent review of more than 120 studies considers this question. Researchers looked more closely at how racism and religious discrimination impact children and teens.

The researchers found strong evidence that racism and discrimination worsen young people’s mental health. Experiencing more of these incidents was tied to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and to behavior problems as well. A weaker connection was found to physical health problems, like high blood pressure or obesity. Meanwhile, youth who felt angrier about the racism they experienced became more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.

How do racism and discrimination act to take their toll? While there are many possible pathways, we know that chronic stress, such as the type caused by experiencing incidents of bias, causes wear and tear on the body that can actually degrade health. Stress like this can also cause people to turn away from healthy coping methods, like exercise, towards unhealthy ones, such as substance abuse.

Many children and teens of color also don’t have access to high-quality housing, healthcare, and education. This creates more stress, and can harm health as well. As these researchers emphasize, these issues may continue into adulthood.

In the face of these findings, what can parents do to combat the negative effects of racism in society? Researchers did note that youth whose parents were positive and supportive and who had high levels of social support were less affected by racism. And though ending racism and inequality is a long journey, we can all work together to stop discrimination, learn about diversity, and educate the next generation. For more on how to talk to children about race and diversity, check out the links in Further Reading.

(Photo credit: Stop hating (all way) by sylvar. CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.)

Further Reading


 Priest, N., Paradies, Y., Trenerry, B., Truong, M., Karlsen, S., & Kelly, Y. (2013). A systematic review of studies examining the relationship between reported racism and health and wellbeing for children and young people. Social Science and Medicine, 95, 115-127.