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Since the video of the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols was publicly released, various media outlets have repeatedly played clips of the video or described its contents. These illustrations of racialized violence may place a segment of our society at risk for vicarious trauma exposure once again. Previously, 2020 was deemed the year of “racial reckoning”  following the murders of numerous Black individuals, including George Floyd, and widespread protests. The topic of race was largely unavoidable, with frequent reminders present in daily life, television and social media. Viewing this content repeatedly meant that mothers of Black children may have faced a distinct and painful form of racial stress: the knowledge that they can never fully protect the child they love from the dangers of bias.

In the wake of this reckoning, I gave birth. I sat in the hospital bed, exhausted and joyous, as I held my hours-old infant in my arms. A nurse arrived to explain how they typically monitor infants for jaundice. When she glanced at my baby, she looked concerned. We usually check for yellowing skin, she informed me, but that’s not going to work because he’s so dark-skinned. I froze in trepidation after hearing a White nurse call my fair complexioned newborn “dark-skinned.” Working in this field, I knew my son and I would have “the talk” one day but was blind-sided by my child already being racialized in his first moments of life. I thought of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and wondered how much discrimination my son would face as he aged.

For parents, the race-related events of 2020 were likely viewed through varying lenses. For some, these events may have provided opportunities for parent-child communication about values, advocacy, or hope for change. Others may have felt increased worry about their own child’s safety. Based on prevailing stress models (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), these differing lenses, also known as appraisals, have implications for an individual’s wellbeing. For parents of color, and particularly Black parents, publicized racial killings may be a type of vicarious racism exposure, which can result in worry about their own children’s safety (Thomas & Blackmon, 2015). Our team wondered whether this racism-related stress could contribute to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. In a recently published open access paper in JOTS, we tested this possibility.

Participants in the study included 262 mothers, all of whom had some previous mental health diagnosis and a child between 3-18 years (67% non-Hispanic, White children; 16% African-American/Black children; 17% other children of color). Mothers completed online surveys and open-ended questions in December 2020 and again about four months later. 

To better understand how mothers appraised the events of 2020, they were asked about how they thought the events may impact their child’s future. Open-ended verbatim responses were subject to computerized text analysis for affective content using LIWC15 (i.e., frequency of positive and negative emotion words) and thematic coding by a team of independent coders for perceived positive and negative appraisals. Using these indicators, we tested whether there were racial/ethnic differences in mothers’ appraisals and whether appraisals predicted the course of PTSD symptoms over time.

What did we find? Unsurprisingly, the responses from mothers of Black children included significantly more negative words and fewer positive words than mothers of White children or children of other racial/ethnic groups. They also differed in perceived negative appraisals, with 68% of mothers of Black children predicting negative implications compared to 37% of White children and 50% of children from other racial/ethnic groups.  There were no differences in the presence of positive themes, with about half of the mothers in all three groups describing some positive implications. Of most interest, the extent to which mothers’ appraisals predicted the subsequent course of PTSD symptoms differed by child race/ethnicity. Among mothers of Black children, those who made the most negative appraisals reported a subsequent increase in PTSD symptoms, while those who made the least negative showed the largest decline in symptoms across the sample. The inclusion of angry and sad terms in appraisals, not anxiety, were most predictive of PTSD symptom increase. In contrast, variations in appraisals were unrelated to subsequent PTSD symptoms for all other mothers.

These findings provide empirical support for the concerns raised by scholarly and community leaders, that publicized violence against Black-Americans can have potentially traumatizing effects (e.g., National Center for PTSD, 2022). Perhaps the hardest part of these videos is hearing Tyre Nichols or George Floyd’s final cries for their mothers. As highlighted in my childbirth experience, mothers of Black children regularly face reminders that living in a racially stratified society means their child is inherently vulnerable. These racialized events may signal environmental threat to some mothers and could exacerbate other symptoms. As providers expand their sense of responsibility to recognize and address racial stress in all its forms, understanding this emotional burden is essential. Thus, clinicians working with parents of Black children should explore concerns for children’s safety and recognize that racism-related stress can play a role in family mental health. Evidence-based PTSD treatment models are grounded in addressing fear and anxiety (e.g., exposure), but race-related stress and PTSD may benefit from incorporating emotions such as anger and sadness. Openly discussing the full range of emotions associated with discrimination is critical for effectively working with minoritized clientele.  

Target Article

Printz Pereira, D., Dominguez Perez, S., & Milan, S. (In press). U.S. mothers’ appraisals of the race-related events of 2020: Implications for the course of maternal posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Journal of Traumatic Stress. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22904 

Discussion Questions

  1. Why might angry and sad terms predict mothers of Black children's PTSD symptoms more than anxiety-based terms?
  2. How could these findings be used to improve clinical and community-based interventions for Black families?
  3. How can media reduce the risk of vicarious trauma while disseminating information about race-related violence?

About the Authors

Destiny Printz Pereira, M.S. is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Psychological Sciences. Her research focuses on traumatic and chronic stress in families of color and low socioeconomic status and the resulting mental and physical health impacts across the lifespan. Her current research focuses on the psychosocial and biological mechanisms of the intergenerational transmission of trauma, early intervention, oppression-related stress, and equitable assessment of traumatic stress. She can be contacted at destiny.printz@uconn.edu and followed on Twitter @DestinyPrintzUC.
Stephanie Milan, PhD is an Associate Professor and the Clinical Psychology Program Head at the University of Connecticut Department of Psychological Sciences. Her research focuses on mechanisms of intergenerational risk from trauma, maternal mental health, and risk and resiliency in families of color.

References Cited

azarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer.
National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021, August 16). Racial Trauma. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/types/racial_trauma.asp
Thomas, A., & Blackmon, S. (2015). The influence of the Trayvon Martin shooting on racial socialization practices of African American parents. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(1), 75–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798414563610