Can racism towards a mum harm her children?

26 August 2015

Racism can have such a negative impact on ethnic minority mothers that the mental trauma can affect their child’s emotional wellbeing, according to a new study.

Researcher, Dr Laia Becares, University of Manchester, and her colleagues from University College London, analysed information on more than 1,600 mothers of children taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study.

The study’s authors found that almost a quarter of mothers (23%) received racist insults, 16 per cent experienced disrespectful treatment from shop staff and 23 per cent reported family members being treated unfairly, when their children were 5 years old.

These experiences led to the mothers reporting poorer mental health when children were 7 years of age. Family experiences of racial discrimination were also found to be associated with an increase in harsh parenting practices, such as smacking or shouting.

Maternal psychological distress, and to a lesser degree, tough parenting were linked to increased socioemotional difficulties for children when they reached the age of 11.

“The study offers strong support to show that a mother’s experience of racial insults, of being treated disrespectfully by shop staff and the broader family experience of unfair treatment, harms children over time as a result of the mother’s worsening mental health,” Becares explains.

Maternal mental health was assessed by asking mothers questions about their psychological state over the past month. The researchers measured parenting practices by using records of how often mothers smacked or shouted at their children.

Children’s socioemotional development was assessed through a questionnaire completed by the mother, which asked whether their child had shown conduct and emotional problems and hyperactivity.

“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 an important factor in the health of ethnic minority children.

“If we break cycles of deprivation and begin to redress the imbalances in health between the majority and minority populations, policymakers would do well to put more emphasis on mothers’ mental health,” Becares concludes.

Further information

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

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