How Are Police Shootings Affecting Children of Color’s Emotional Development?

Children’s physical safety is a concern for those who design, build and evaluate playgrounds, schools, child care facilities and a whole host of products intended for children of all ages. There are laws, regulations and design standards at all levels of government, which must be adhered to by those who design, build and produce these facilities and products in order to protect the health and safety of children. We have standards about the water that they drink or the paint that we use or the gasoline that we put in our vehicles to protect everyone’s health, but most importantly our children’s health. We vaccinate our children (or choose not to vaccinate) because we are concerned about their health and want to protect them from disease. As an environmental psychologist, I study the interaction of physical and social environments on human beings. In this role, I examine how this interaction affects child development, behavior and well-being.

All, or at least most, of these efforts to protect children’s physical safety and health are done not because children perceive any danger, but because as a society, we have decided that adults must take responsibility for those who cannot protect themselves. These efforts affect children’s physical safety and cognitive development. Laws and societal standards also attempt to protect children’s physical safety, as well as emotional and psychological safety related to child abuse. The abusers are, more often than not, the children’s guardians or trusted adult community members. In the past few weeks, the nation was horribly reminded of how adult behavior can shatter children’s emotional and psychological safety.

A New York Times article entitled “In the Turmoil Over Race and Policing, Children Pay a Steep Emotional Price” reports on the trauma experienced by the children, all of whom are African American, whose relatives were killed in a policing incident. The trauma is not confined to the immediate aftermath of the incident, but continues for months and years following the death of the loved one. The loss of a parent, sibling or other close relative is likely to be emotionally traumatizing for any child under any circumstance. No doubt children whose relatives are killed in gang-related incidents or accidents or war have a difficult time coping. To lose a relative at the hands of a “trusted member” of the community — the police — for no other reason it seems than the color of that relative’s skin, however, is not only a cause for grieving for the loved one, but perhaps to fear for one’s own safety. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice’s sister not only saw her brother’s physical safety taken away, but his killing has deeply threatened her emotional and psychological safety, and perhaps a sense of her own physical safety as well.

The New York Times piece chronicles the lives of those whose relatives were killed at the hands of the police. Children as young as 4, according to the article, show signs of potential emotional damage related to the killing of their relative. The families of these children are concerned about the potential long-term psychological or emotional damage. What will be their perception of safety in the future? Will they have trust in the police and in society to protect them? It seems we must ask a broader questions as well: Will all children of color now perceive that they are less safe? What does that mean in terms of their own sense of self, their value to society, their psychological and emotional health?

Difficult interactions, sometimes tragic interactions, between young men of color and members of law enforcement are not new. Many African-American parents of boys teach them at an early age how to interact with the police in hopes of lessening the chances that they will become another statistic. We start this education at a young age, something white parents rarely have to worry about. The fact that parents of children of color have long been aware of these issues is not new. What is of heightened concern now is that the children themselves, even at a young age, have a heightened perception of lack of safety. In my research, young adolescents of color in two different cities told us (the interviewers) that they felt less safe when the police were in their community because “they aren’t really there for us.” No doubt social media that includes graphic videos have reinforced this sense of lack of safety. The 5-year-old son of an interracial couple, both of whom are academics and have no television in the home, told his parents that he wishes he was more white like his mother rather than darker like his father. When his parents asked why he felt that way, he said, “So I won’t be shot.” There are government or industry regulations that seek to ensure that the clothes children wear and the toys they play with and the surface on their playgrounds are safe. But, how do we as a society give a 5-year-old child a perception of safety that he will not be shot because of his skin color?