Can racism towards a mum hurt her children?

Racial discrimination affects people in a range of ways. We know, for instance, that it can lead to poor health. We know, too, that our lives are linked, particularly with those of family members. So, can racism suffered by a parent affect a child? Are the negative effects of social ills transmitted within families? If so, how? And how might we be able to break negative links? A new study reveals some interesting patterns and possible explanations, as Dr Laia Becares from the University of Manchester, explains:

Understanding how our lives are linked is an essential part of understanding how society works. We know that racial discrimination affects the health and life chances of an individual, and it leads to inequalities in health among ethnic minority people, compared to the White majority population.

We know, too, that racial discrimination experienced by one individual impacts not only on that particular person, but on family members of the same generation, and those of previous and future generations. For example, if someone is discriminated against at work in terms of a promotion to a better position, or even in terms of getting hired, this has clear important financial consequences for that person, but also for her/his children, and older family members who may be under their care.

This is one of the ways in which the harm of racial discrimination is perpetuated across generations. Socioeconomic circumstances are strongly linked to health, so this example also shows how racial discrimination leads to poor health indirectly – via socioeconomic inequalities.

Racism and our health

But what about the direct association between racial discrimination and poor health, and the way this harm is transmitted across generations?

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a representative study of children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002, offers a quality and quantity of data that, with the right interrogation, offers some important suggestions.

To ask the right questions of the data we needed a hypothesis. Drawing on well-established literature, we chose to focus on two potential mechanisms of transmission.

First we looked at the possible impact of racial discrimination on a mother’s mental health and then at the possible impact on parenting practice, particularly the possibility of it increasing harsh discipline tactics. These two mechanisms are centred on increased stress experienced by the mother following experiences of racial discrimination.

We also looked at three different types of exposure to racial discrimination – that suffered by the mother, that suffered by the family as a whole and that affecting the whole neighbourhood.

Information about the MCS children has been collected at various points since the start of the study. We used data collected when the children were between five and eleven years old.

Measuring discrimination

Racial discrimination was measured in terms of the mother’s experience of racially motivated insults, disrespectful treatment, or unfair treatment. We also used measures of whether family members had been treated unfairly, and whether the family lived in a neighbourhood where racial insults or attacks were common.

Mental health was assessed using the Kessler-6 scale – a well-established scale based on how often an individual has felt such things as depression and nervousness over the past month.

We measured harsh parenting practices by using records of how often parents had smacked or shouted at their children. And we measured the child’s socioemotional development by using another well-established scale – the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire developed by Robert Goodman and others.

We adjusted for complicating factors such as mother’s age at time of birth, mother’s educational attainment, household income, whether the mom was born in the UK, and the language most often spoken in the home.

For each factor we used data gathered at relevant stages. So, the measure of racial discrimination is based on data collected when the children were five years old, the mother’s mental health and parenting practices when the children were seven years old and the outcome when the children were aged eleven. The sample was pooled from all UK ethnic minority groups.

Racism and mental health

Around the time of the child’s fifth birthday almost a quarter (23%) of ethnic minority mothers reported having been racially insulted. There was a strong association with less good mental health for the mother two years later.

Both increased maternal psychological distress and increased harsh parenting practices were associated with increased socioemotional difficulties for the child at age 11. A worsening of the mother’s mental health had the most consistent indirect effect on a child’s socioemotional difficulties six years later.

Our results also showed some direct effects of racial discrimination on children. Family experiences of unfair treatment all had a direct effect on a child’s later socioemotional development.

We have to acknowledge some limitations of the study. We restricted ourselves to discrimination faced by mothers and its consequences. There are other things going on in families that affect children’s health. Plus ethnic minority children are likely to experience discrimination directly at school. And, of course, ethnic minority families are more likely to live in deprived areas and to suffer from other social inequalities.

Damage over time underestimated

The study does, however, offer strong support to our hypothesis that a mother’s experience of racial insults, of being treated disrespectfully by shop staff and broader family experience of unfair treatment, harms children over time as a result of the mother’s worsening mental health. This has been underestimated in the past.

If we are to break cycles of deprivation and begin to redress the imbalances in health between the majority and minority populations, policy-makers would do well to put more emphasis on mothers’ mental health.

Whatever is done to reduce a child’s direct experience of racial discrimination – at school, for instance – the mother’s experience and its effect on her is now shown to be important factor in the health of ethnic minority children. That said, the main implication of this study is that racial discrimination is harmful to individuals, families, and societies, and so efforts should be targeted at eliminating it.

A longitudinal examination of maternal, family, and area-level experiences of racism on children’s socioemotional development: Patterns and possible explanations is research by Dr Laia Becares, Professor James Nazroo and Professor Yvonne Kelly and is published in Social Science and Medicine.

Photo credit: moinuddin forhad