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  • 19 November 2020
  • 3 years

Raising Your Black Child to Be Resilient

Dr. Kennette Thigpen


The road to freedom, justice, and equality has not been an easy one for Black people. Blacks have been oppressed, mistreated, overlooked, dismissed, and ignored throughout our history. But that adversity has come with a positive antidote: resilience.

How can we raise our children to succeed in an often unjust world? We can’t shelter them from the oppression and injustice they will encounter. As much as we want to, we just can’t. It is not a matter of if they will experience discrimination, it is when. But we can teach our children how to respond to challenges and risks, and we can help to protect them by fostering their resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity, to recover from trauma, to achieve positive outcomes despite significant obstacles. Resilience is a dynamic process in which a person adapts to setbacks and surmounts them. Resilience is not a personality trait or an attribute of an individual. It’s a learned ability that grows from experience—like building muscle strength and flexibility with exercise.

Resilient people choose their responses to what happens around them, understanding what they can and cannot control. They focus their efforts and their emotions on things they can influence or change.

What does research tell us about resilience?

How children respond to adversity—racial and otherwise—has been found by researchers to depend on “protective factors.” These include

  • Internal protective factors—such as personality traits, intellect, coping skills, emotional self-regulation, self-esteem, and life satisfaction
  • Family protective factors—such as family coherence, a stable parent, strong parent-child relationships, and spousal support
  • Community protective factors—such as peer relationships, nonfamily relationships, and religion or spirituality

The more protective factors a child has, the more resilient they are likely to be in the face of adversity.

Positive racial identity is another protective factor that helps Black children, in particular, be resilient. Racial socialization influences children’s racial identity and self-concept. By building a strong positive Black identity in our children—pride in being Black and a healthy sense of self-worth—we provide a protective armor against the too-common negative perceptions of Blacks in our society.

Fostering emotional self-regulation is also of special importance for Black children. Emotionally well-regulated children generally display a positive mood, are optimistic, and demonstrate empathy and prosocial behavior with peers. Children who can understand emotions are better able to see how their behaviors and social interactions are perceived by others. The unfortunate reason this is important is that the emotional expressions of Blacks are often misread as hostile, angry, or excessively reactionary.

How can we foster resilience in our Black children (and in ourselves)?

Teaching our children any important life skill involves modeling the behavior we want them to learn. That’s particularly true when it comes to resilience. So, the following suggestions aren’t just for your children. They’re for the adults in your child’s life, too. The more resilience you, as a parent, demonstrate in the face of adversity, the more your children will take these lessons to heart and the more likely they will be to grow up to be resilient adults:

1. Recognize that learning comes from experience.

  • When a baby is learning to walk, they don’t fall once and give up trying. As parents, we don’t pick them up when they fall and carry them where they need to go. No, we encourage them to get up and try again and offer support as needed. That’s an early lesson in resilience.
  • As children grow older, the stakes get higher. Children learn from their interactions, and they grow stronger and more confident when they encounter setbacks and discover that they can deal with them. Allowing children to have these experiences in a semi-controlled environment is the way to ensure they develop the skills they need to become resilient when things go wrong. Sometimes, we must move out of our children’s way. We need to let them experience some of the pain of life to allow the growth and healing to take place.

2. Help your children learn from adversity.

  • Every challenge we face has the potential to strengthen us and give us new skills to use in conquering future challenges. But setbacks can also be painful. When your child experiences adversity, help them use it as a learning opportunity. Talk about what has happened, acknowledge their feelings, and ask them how they might deal with that challenge or obstacle if they encounter it again.
  • Model this in your own actions in life, too, in ways that your children can see. When bad things happen, show your own resilience. We can’t control how other people treat us or avoid unpleasant surprises in life, but we can choose how we react. Will you let adversity be a stumbling block? Or, will you turn it into a stepping-stone?

3. Control what you can control. Reactive people say, “There is nothing I can do.” Reactive people don’t take responsibility for their lives. They constantly feel victimized. They feel they are the product of circumstances, their past, and other people. They do not see the creative forces within them. Proactive people say, “Let’s look at our alternatives.” As resilient people, we control our own feelings. Resilient people are proactive and say, “I can choose a different approach.”

4. Feel and show empathy. Make an effort to look at the world through other people’s eyes and understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. That empathy is a cornerstone of human relationships and a tenet of the world’s religions. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Teach your child empathy and demonstrate it yourself in your interaction with other people. As you go throughout your day, think of the intent behind what you say and do.

5. Pay attention to how you are communicating. Communicating for understanding—speaking clearly and listening carefully—is an integral component of resilience and is closely linked to empathy. Effective communication includes understanding how our verbal and nonverbal communication is perceived by others. Teach and show your child what real communication is. Listen before you talk. Speak clearly and from your heart. Pay attention to the nonverbal signals you may be sending with your posture and facial expressions.

6. Rewrite your negative scripts. Over time, we all develop habits of thought and behavior. These can include negative scripts—irrational self-doubt and unhelpful patterns of behavior. We are the authors of our lives. Change cannot take place until we become participants in our lives. Be aware of negative thoughts and behavior patterns that are holding you back, and work to rewrite them into more positive paths. Take stock of your life and have the courage to set new goals. Help your child develop positive habits and a confident self-image.

7. Don’t let setbacks stop you. Sometimes it’s the actions of other people, bad luck, or unfair rules that get in the way, not your own mistakes. These setbacks and obstacles are a part of life. Model resilient behavior when you encounter setbacks and make your actions visible to your children. Talk with your child about discouraging experiences and what can be learned from them. Discuss how these experiences can be overcome with effort, creativity, and the help of others, and how they can help you grow as a person.

8. Combat racism with racial socialization. Racial socialization is a term for a broad array of steps we can take to instill self-pride in our children. At its most basic level, it includes telling them that we love them for who they are, that we find them wonderful and beautiful. It includes the encouragement of cultural pride and the promotion of cultural knowledge, such as exposure to African American history and traditions. It includes sharing implicit and explicit guidance on how to deal with racism when they encounter it. At appropriate ages, it includes sharing information on the history of racial oppression and what has been done and is being done to create a more just and universally welcoming society. It’s our role as caring adults to help our Black children recognize racism and to nurture positive cultural and racial identities to combat it.

Black youth will need resilience to navigate their futures, whatever those may bring. In raising your Black child, consider all of the protective factors that can help them grow up to be strong, empathic, and successful adults. Those include internal factors in your child: self-pride, empathy, and emotional self-management. They include family factors, like a safe home with stable, emotionally mature adults. And they include community factors: other trusted adults, healthy peer relationships, and a grounding in faith or religion. Resilience gives us the strength and flexibility to learn from adverse experiences, to heal, to be empowered, to create change, and to live life to the fullest. Resilience is in our DNA.

© 2020 Kennette Thigpen. Used by permission of the author.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

Thigpen, K. (2020). Raising Your Black Child to be Resilient. In Rated Black: A parent’s underground guide to dealing with the police [Edited Excerpt]. Durham, NC: Swiner Publishing.

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