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New Research Examines the Lifelong Impact of Racism on a Child’s Development

Resource May 27, 2021

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and sustained exposure to trauma are shown to have a negative impact on a child’s development that can last a lifetime. New analysis from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child examines the adversities of deeply embedded structural and cultural racism, interpersonal discrimination, and the inequities in public systems, and the profound impact they can have on children’s healthy development when experienced in the earliest years.

Researchers found that, “the need to cope continuously with the burdens of structural racism and everyday discrimination can be a potent activator of that kind of persistent stress response,” leading to a lifetime of physical and mental health struggles.

“Extensive research on the association between significant adversity in childhood and disparities in lifelong health has consistently demonstrated that the greater the number of risk factors, the greater the likelihood of poor outcomes. Decades of research have also documented how racism in particular—whether overt or invisible to those who are not affected directly—can negatively influence the well-being of children and families. Science is now helping to explain these effects and point to solutions.”

The Harvard study authors point to a need for early childhood interventions that can help mitigate the impacts of these harmful experiences in the short term, while taking steps to confront and dismantle the “deeply embedded, structural inequities associated with systemic racism.” 

What’s more, children in the U.S. who are not white are also more likely to live in poverty creating more opportunities for ACEs. Financial difficulties are among the most common items on the conventional inventories of stressful life.

Too many children experience racism on both a personal and structural level on a daily basis. The evidence makes clear that structural, cultural, and interpersonal racism imposes unique and substantial stressors on the daily lives of families raising young children of color. It is imperative to invest in programs that support families, allow children of all backgrounds to succeed, and lead to a more equitable early learning and care system, all while dismantling the racist structures and institutions that create this trauma and adversity in the first place.

Read the full report from the Center on the Developing Child here.

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