In recent years, there has been a growing awareness about childhood trauma and its lasting effects on learning, development, and long-term outcomes. According to recent statistics, approximately 35 million children have experienced one or more types of trauma (varying in intensity), and young children are at higher risk than older children.

In fact, over 25% of all confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect involve children under three years of age (Bartlett, Smith, and Bringewatt 2017). Children who experience these types of traumatic occurrences are more likely to have attention, language, behavioral, problem solving, and self-regulation difficulties (Walkley & Cox, 2013).

When the wounds of trauma remain unhealed, these adverse factors can affect brain development and have negative effects on long-term outcomes, including increased likelihood for mental illness, substance abuse, and low educational achievement (Franke, 2014; Sheridan & Nelson, 2009).

Traditional definitions of trauma include events, such as physical and/or emotional abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one, community violence, domestic violence, or parental substance abuse.

“Families living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to multiple traumatic experiences.”

Although it is not often included, poverty also is considered a traumatic event because low-income families are more likely to experience greater levels of prolonged stress which can contribute to difficulties in later adjustment (Blair et al. 2011; Jiang, Granja, and Koboll 2017; Wadsworth and Santiago 2008).

Previous research suggests that economic hardship negatively affects the overall well-being within a family because healthy development of brain circuits is dependent on healthy experiences (Shanks and Robinson 2013; Tierney and Nelson 2009).

Negative consequences of poverty appear to intensify the longer a child is impoverished and the longer children are exposed to stress factors. In addition, families living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to multiple traumatic experiences (i.e., complex trauma) that are linked to later negative outcomes.

Because of the intersection between race and poverty, more Black families experience prolonged exposure to numerous stressors that negatively affect their children’s learning and development. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (2016), 12% of White children are live in poverty compared to 34% of Black children.

Information can be found on the National Center for Children in Poverty:

Similarly, 17% of Black children are living in deep poverty while only 5% of White children experience the same living conditions (Koball and Jiang 2018). Because of this disproportionate poverty, Black Americans also experience disproportionate trauma.

The complex trauma experienced by many Black children and families living in poverty is a by-product of historical trauma. According to Lebron and colleagues (2015), historical trauma is the cumulative negative effects of individual and structural racism on the lives of people of color.

The trauma of racism has produced negative psychological, health, economic, and social effects on generations of Black people in this country. This repetitive, unresolved trauma overwhelms a person’s and a community’s ability to cope and creates feelings of powerlessness that perpetuate the cycle.

When we understand the experience of trauma and how individuals develop coping mechanisms to live through their experiences, we are able to better understand the multigenerational trauma that is disproportionately found within high-poverty Black neighborhoods.

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The moment that Africans were torn from their homes and forced into servitude, specific coping mechanisms were developed, which helped them to survive the horrors of slavery.

For over 250 years, slaves passed down those coping mechanisms from one generation to the next, which, over time, adapted to meet the demands of current barriers and inequitable structures within our society.

When an individual experiences trauma, there is a deep sense of shame, guilt, self-blame, and negative self-worth that becomes a part of that person’s self-concept.

If that child or adult does not engage in the lifelong process of healing from the wounds of the traumatic experiences, all those feelings of worthlessness and shame, as well as individual coping mechanisms (e.g., externalizing behaviors, substance abuse, violence) are passed on from one generation to the next; thus, the cycle of multigenerational trauma.

Because the dehumanization and inferiority of Black children and families have become so engrained within our nation’s psyche, it is difficult to address individual trauma without also addressing historical trauma.

When we ignore the role of historical trauma in the perpetuation of individual trauma, we stay within a first generation equity mindset. By only addressing individual trauma, we continue to put a band-aid on the problem rather than confronting the root causes of the disproportionate trauma.

We also stay within a ‘blame the victim,’ paternalistic mentality where we place the responsibility on the individuals who are experiencing trauma rather than shifting the responsibility back to the communities and systems that originated and sustain the structural barriers that created the trauma in the first place.

In this country, there is a propensity to treat individual family problems, affect disorders, or substance abuse issues rather than working to heal the hidden wounds of racial oppression (Hardy 2013).

Healing the pain of historical trauma takes place when we… (Lebron et al. 2015)

  • A) Affirm and acknowledge the pain and experiences associated with racism.

  • B) Create space for talking about race.

  • C) Provide opportunities for racial storytelling, even with younger children.

  • D) Validate an individual’s worldview and worth.

  • E) Name the hidden wounds of racial oppression. (e.g., understanding that racial oppression is a cause of their pain)

  • F) Help children rechannel their anger and rage by teaching key social-emotional skills.

We, White people, struggle within these types of activities because they require a bit more vulnerability, owning up, and intentionality to address the root causes of children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

As we move forward into more committed equity work, we must move beyond a tendency to just address the individual symptom. White people, in particular, must develop a greater awareness and understanding about the trauma of racism and how it affects the lives of Black Americans on a daily basis.

We must provide more space for talking about the deep truths within our society that we so often push away because they make us uncomfortable, guilty, or ashamed.

“When we ignore the role of historical trauma, we stay within a first generation equity mindset.”

If we are to take on a committed approach to equity within our society, we must acknowledge our own roles in sustaining the trauma of racism through our daily interactions, support of specific policies that perpetuate inequities (e.g., school district zoning, resource allocation, gentrification), hiring practices, and decisions about who should be in leadership positions.

It is time for White people to stop confusing compassion with justice. Our acts of compassion, that usually involve food drives, coat drives, or donating materials to under-resourced schools, uphold the permanency of racism within our society and ensure that the roots of historical trauma remain firmly embedded within our communities.

Instead, White people must become more educated about our true history rather than relying on the whitewashed version we have been taught for generations.

Greater understanding and awareness creates a context for more committed equity work that focuses on disrupting the roots of the oppression within each of our country’s systems, including health/mental health, education, and criminal justice.

These efforts are critical if we are truly committed to healing the wounds of historical trauma.

Click here for more content by Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.!

Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.
Jen started her career in early childhood education over 20 years ago in the classroom teaching young children with significant behavioral challenges.


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