Black youths cope with violence in distinctive ways, researcher says

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Within the field of clinical psychology, there is a lack of knowledge about African American youth and their responses to stress. Stress no doubt plays an important role in everyone’s lives, but young people are particularly more susceptible to the negative effects of stress due to lack of control over their environments.

Noni Gaylord-Harden, a professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, works with Black children and families to broaden the understanding of stress, coping, and psychosocial functioning in African American adolescents. Gaylord-Harden’s research also includes the effect of community violence as a stressor on youth in urban communities as a whole.

“Young people don’t have the same level of autonomy as adults,” Gaylord-Harden said. “The importance of addressing this in African American children is recognizing that a great deal of the work on African American children was focused on how stress impacted their disruptive behavior. It was almost like African American children didn’t have an internal or emotional life. That’s how the field treated African American children for a long time. It was important for me to start to address some of the areas of psychological functioning that were being overlooked but could easily have an impact on the daily lives of African American kids.”

Her research found several interesting conclusions. One such finding is a result of the lack of resources and attention on community needs. Systemic racism, oppression, and marginalization stem from this lack of resources and leads to large levels of uncontrollable stressors for young people. Another finding is that 90% of adolescents within the community had witnessed or had been a victim of at least one violent event. Gaylord-Harden said one of her most important research findings is the role of community violence as a traumatic stressor.   

“It’s different from stressors being experienced in their friend group, things they might be experiencing at home, or academic stressors,” Gaylord-Harden explained. “This is a stressor that has a threat of bodily harm or death. It’s traumatic whether they’ve been a witness or a victim of community violence. This is important because a great deal of my work has focused on desensitization of community violence. We found that young people are not desensitized to violence. There can be emotional numbing which is not unusual in the face of traumatic stress. At the same time, there is a physiological reaction to community violence. We found that community violence is a traumatic stressor that impacts young people through post-traumatic stress symptoms.” 

Gaylord-Harden noted that this physiological reaction is exhibited as symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, such as physiological hyperarousal and hypervigilance. Current treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder focus on helping people recover from one significantly traumatic event, but what about people who are in communities with continuous traumatic events?

“We’ve learned that we need to modify our interventions so that they better reflect the experiences of young people in under-resourced urban communities,” Gaylord-Harden shared. “Some of these behaviors that we consider to be maladaptive, dysfunctional, or symptoms are actually adaptive within certain settings and contexts. In one of our studies, young people who showed high levels of hypervigilance had lower levels of witnessing violence and being a victim one year later. It questions some of our intervention approaches in the field that focus on reducing those symptoms because if our work has shown that it is helpful, then we need to do a better job at tailoring our intervention to specific contexts so that we’re not disabling survival strategies of young people through our intervention.”

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