Researchers Find that Addressing Underlying Emotions Can Prevent Depression, Behavior Problems
In a new study of Black teens, researchers from UMD and from the Georgetown University School of Medicine found that—while experiencing racial discrimination can lead to depressive symptoms and behavior problems—support from parents might help to alleviate and prevent these issues.
Specifically, parents can help teens identify and work through the underlying emotions of shame and self-blame that can occur following incidents of discrimination. Expressing these feelings can help to avoid the internalization of racist messages, which can lead to depression or behavioral problems.
“Importantly, we found that discrimination did not evoke these heightened emotions and associated mental health problems among teens whose parents had discussions with them in which they acknowledged racism, served as advocates, encouraged teens to problem solve, and had warm relationships in which teens felt comfortable expressing their emotions,” said Assistant Professor Angel Dunbar of UMD’s Department of African American Studies.
The researchers surveyed 110 Black teens, ages 14 to 17, about their emotional reactions to discriminatory experiences, and about any depression or anxiety symptoms and behavior problems.
Teens and their parents were also presented with a hypothetical discriminatory event perpetrated by a teacher and asked to discuss together what they would do. Discussions were recorded and rated along various verbal and non-verbal dimensions.
The findings were published in Child Development. Dunbar and her coauthors sought to understand what types of emotional responses to discrimination contribute most to Black teens’ mental health and behavior problems. The researchers also aimed to discover whether parents of Black teens who encourage constructive expression of emotions and promote agency have teens whose behavioral health is less adversely impacted by racial injustice.
While teens who reported experiencing discrimination said they felt anger, frustration, and disrespected, these emotions were not associated with depressive symptoms. Surprisingly, they also were not associated with the fighting and rule-breaking behaviors that are typically attributed to an underlying anger problem.
Notably, respondents were asked what emotions they felt specifically when discriminated against, separate from the general mental health assessments.
“As researchers, we do not always distinguish having an emotional response to an identifiable stressor—which can be healthy—from the behavioral or mental health consequences if emotions go unregulated,” Dunbar said.
According to emotion theory, anger and frustration function to motivate individuals to regain control when threatened or violated. Thus, these assertive emotions may be a healthy response to being discriminated against by facilitating active coping such as social-political activism. (See recent scholarship in the American Journal of Community Psychology.)
Conversely, sadness, shame, or embarrassment may reflect youths’ internalization of denigrating racist messages, helplessness, and self-blame. This is important because discrimination and feeling that pain is inescapable are both risk factors for suicide, which is increasing among Black youth.
The researchers assert that families and clinicians should consider that feelings of sadness, shame, and embarrassment due to racial trauma may underlay both depression and behavior problems. Encouraging teens to express these emotions constructively and promoting their sense of agency may redirect these defeating and self-blaming emotions outward toward the source of discrimination, in productive actions such as socio-political activism and community-building.
“By understanding the emotional processes elicited by discrimination that are most detrimental to youths’ mental health, we can develop more targeted prevention and intervention strategies,” said coauthor Professor Mia A. Smith-Bynum of UMD’s School of Public Health.
“Clinicians can support Black parents by helping parents develop the skills and confidence to discuss issues of race and discrimination with their teens in ways that enable teens to feel emotionally supported,” added coauthor Assistant Professor Erica E. Coates of the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
However, the researchers note that the bulk of the responsibility should not rest on Black families.
“Black youths’ expressions of anger and frustration—which we found to be normal and healthy responses to discrimination—are often viewed as more aggressive and threatening than the expressions of their White counterparts. This biased perception of Black youths’ emotions can result in harsher discipline by schools and the justice system, thus, continuing the cycle of victimization for Black youth,” Dunbar said.
“Policies that require police, teachers, and other authority figures to confront their bias should be implemented to minimize discrimination and its harmful effects on Black youth,” said coauthor Lydia HaRim Ahn, a Ph.D. student in UMD’s Counseling Psychology program.
This project was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Purdue Research Foundation, and was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Child Health and Human Development and the Maryland Population Research Center.
Article published on Sept. 29, 2021. Image via iStock.