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Member Research and Reports

Maryland Research Explores Black Mothers’ Conversations with Teens about Coping with Racial Discrimination

How do Black parents teach their children to handle racial discrimination? This task is central to optimal development in Black children, but it is a delicate and often stressful parenting dilemma.

A new study on communication in black families, led by Dr. Mia Smith-Bynum in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, finds that Black mothers’ carefully tailor their responses to their teenagers’ experiences with racial discrimination and delicately guide their adolescents through racially stressful dilemmas. The research, which analyzed “racial socialization” messages communicated by African American mothers to their teenaged children, was published online in the journal Child Development on May 23.

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[Photo: Dr. Mia Smith-Bynum]

“Across daily interactions, Black parents are constantly considering how much to identify situations involving racial discrimination to their children and how to problem-solve with them. How much discussion about the realities of racism is too much? How do parents avoid making children bitter in the process?” Dr. Smith Bynum, an associate professor of family science, explains. “Parents also have to consider when to step in to advocate on behalf of their teenagers in situations where the teenagers may be in over their head. Current events magnify the reality that effective racial socialization can literally be the difference between life and death for some African American youth.”

Most previous research on this parenting practice has focused on what Black parents say, not how they say it. In an effort to elucidate best practices for handling this parenting challenge, Dr. Smith-Bynum and her research team focused on how Black mothers guide their teenagers (ages 14-17) through such situations by video recording two discussions about two common racial dilemmas: subtle discrimination from (1) a White teacher and (2) a White salesperson at a local mall. Through video recordings, the research team captured the strategies mothers used as opposed to focusing on content of messages, as previous studies have done. They also examined how the teenager’s gender and the role of mothers’ positive emotions affected their responses to the two scenarios. Two maternal communication strategies were measured: (1) suggestions for responding to discrimination and (2) parental advocacy with the White adult involved on behalf of the teenager. We also measured mothers’ supportiveness of their teenagers’ efforts to address the discrimination.

Mothers consistently supported the development of their teenagers’ ability to cope with racial discrimination, a skill set that is unfortunately still necessary in the twenty-first century. Additionally, mothers of sons emphasized development of their coping skills more often than did mothers of daughters. Regardless of the situation, mothers of daughters were more willing to advocate on their daughter’s behalf in comparison to mothers of sons. Mothers of sons were likely more concerned about equipping them with good coping skills in case they have to confront racial discrimination when in public spaces.

Mothers suggested more strategies in response to The Teacher vignette when compared to The Mall vignette and offered more suggestions about how to respond than they discussed advocacy across both vignettes. However, The Teacher vignette elicited more comments about the potential for advocacy from mothers than did The Mall vignette. Mothers likely felt a stronger need to advocate with the teacher because teenagers have to navigate that relationship over a longer period of time.

This study is among the first to show that the specific situation and the child’s gender factor into Black parents’ calibrated responses to their children’s discrimination experiences.

Observed Racial Socialization and Maternal Positive Emotions in African American Mother–Adolescent Discussions About Racial Discrimination