I read a story in early December about a nine-year-old who committed suicide. She took her life by hanging after the racist taunting of her classmates became too much for her heart to bear. But this little girl is far from the only one. Child suicide among Black and brown children is a major issue. Among Native American youth, suicide rates are more than three times that of all persons 19 and under, and the suicide rate for Black children between 5 and 12 is more than twice that of white children of the same age (CDC WISQARS, 2009-2016, Bridge, 2018, Sheftall, 2016).
It is not only the black girl in a prep school class who is at risk. It isn’t only the bullied nine-year-old. In the end, each of our children bears or has the potential to bear the burden of difference. I think this particular story makes my heart ache for a few reasons. First, because of the innocent nature of children and because I believe that we as a community have an inherent responsibility to protect these little humans. Children are magic. Second, I am touched by the content of the teasing. We are in a particularly tumultuous time, full of political and racial tensions. This child was bullied for spillover tension from adult issues– racial complexities from which she and other children should be immune. She was bullied for being brave enough to see and love through difference. And this child’s story– the story of so many children– touches me because I was her.
I think we often get so caught up that we forget how early our society teaches children that they are different, and how cruel that lesson can be. For some, the interactions leave space for questions and discussions– discourse– and sharing of framing and coping, but for some, that sharing isn’t enough, or the cruelty of rejection and simply doesn’t leave space in the first place.
I watch public health practitioners talk about stigma or a reluctance to acknowledge mental health in black and brown communities, but what they don’t discuss is the cultural belief in the magic or sanctity of children, the ultimate selflessness of parenthood in communities built on struggle and the simply unrelenting nature of outside forces on the mental health of our communities as a whole, and our children in particular. They watch as their families face complexities of trauma and struggle, then compound the intergenerational and communal issues through personally traumatic experiences of verbal, emotional, and physical violence they’ve been socially hardened against.
So, what can we do?
Recognize our conditioning. For people of struggle, we usually have some level of grit built into the way we teach our children to deal with the outside world- some space of “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up– life is like that,” where we invite them to cope with things by doing more o being better rather than exploring the implications of the circumstance or bearing the burden of the circumstance.
Make space. Ask questions and consider ways that you can foster expression for new and different emotional coping mechanisms that can not only assist in the discovery of perspective and growth of creativity but also in the maturity of the expressive practice. Encourage them not to put the mask on in the first place. Celebrate difference. And if they do wear a mask anyway, peel it off over time. That struggle to find expression, even if momentary, often traps us– leaves us underdeveloped, and by arming our children early, we may be saving them a lifetime of interpersonal struggle.
Offer tools. When you can’t personally give the respite required– either because you carry your own trauma, because you’re uncomfortable or because you simply don’t know how– offer tools for expression through various structured outlets and ask for help. Structured outlets may be academic programs; music or sports-based activities; mentorship or volunteer; or therapy (traditional, religious, dance or music).
Be the advocate. This part is most natural, but be the child’s second-most dedicated advocate. Often we forget that the child must be his or her own help, buying into the process first. You are the strongest support. This may be by immediate resolution, by leading systematic change, or by increasing visibility by living out loud by example.
I make these suggestions as a once-was child for whom these things served as a life raft, and as a concerned member of the community looking to share the load.
How would/do you disarm your children’s masks? How do you seek to bear their burdens?