Research shows that racial discrimination can lower self-esteem, reduce psychological well-being, cause thoughts of suicide, and decrease academic achievement among Black children and adolescents.
Shauna Cooper, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focuses on understanding the impacts of discrimination and how Black families can help their children cope and promote positive development.
Cooper has studied the relationships between Black parents and their children for years. Research demonstrates that both mothers and fathers play important roles in family communications about race and ethnicity.
These conversations are often referred to as “the talk.” Sonny Kelly, who just graduated from UNC in May 2020 with his PhD in communications, wrote a one-man show with the same name after having a conversation with his own son about the 2015 Baltimore riots, which were a response to the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. The monologue tells the story of a Black man talking with his son about race in America and is intended to help a wider audience understand the difficult and sometimes painful realities of Black families.
As a psychologist, Cooper’s goals are similar to Kelly’s in that she wants more people to understand how racism negatively impacts children and parents, but also how families can help their children cope and promote positive well-being, especially in the current social climate.
“Conversations continue to unfold across the nation, on television, and in our own communities around violence toward Black Americans, their experiences with racism, and how parents and children cope with these experiences,” Cooper says. “I think my work speaks to how these conversations unfold, but also the balance parents must have in terms of navigating their own well-being, providing strategies for their children to cope, and preventing stress among their children.”
Given recent events, such as the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests across the country, parents should not shy away from these conversations, Cooper says, and provide children with an open space to discuss these issues.
“’The talk’ is not just a one-time occurrence and should be an ongoing conversation,” Cooper says.
These events can be stressful for Black youth, of all ages.
“And this is likely even more stressful amidst an ongoing pandemic,” Cooper says. “It’s important for parents to check in with children about their mental health and promote a positive sense of self.”
Parents must also be aware of how these events impact their own well-being and what that can mean for family dynamics.
“We need to understand families as systems — something that impacts one person can, directly or indirectly, impact another person in the family,” Cooper says.
Parents help shape how their children begin to engage in their communities and the broader world. Many parents have attended protests with their children, for example, using this as an opportunity to help youth develop their own strategies for addressing racial inequities in their communities. This kind of community engagement contributes to positive well-being and development among Black children and youth, according to Cooper.
Early in her career, while leading a number of research projects related to Black families and children, Cooper realized that there was a major gap in the literature. Where was the research on fathers?
“We know that we engage fathers less,” Cooper says. “Fathers have fewer opportunities to have conversations about parenting more generally and less access to spaces where they can make sense of their own experiences and also think about those experiences within the context of parenting.”
In a recent study, Cooper highlighted Black fathers’ concerns about how racism will impact their children and their strategies for helping them cope and thrive.
Today, Cooper’s research is not only about understanding conversations between fathers and their children, but figuring out how to better engage the populations she works with. Due to the historical exclusion of Black fathers in research and overwhelmingly negative stereotypes, they are often skeptical about participating in studies, she says.
“As scientists, we must acknowledge the historical realities of how we have engaged Black fathers in the past,” Cooper says. “We need to continue to move the field forward, better engaging and reflecting the experiences of Black families and that also includes fathers, regardless of whether they live inside or outside of the home.”
Shauna Cooper is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences and director of the Strengths, Assets, & Resilience (StAR) Lab. She is also a member of the Carolina Consortium on Human Development within the FPG Child Development Institute and a Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar through the Carolina Center for Public Service.