When parents experience racial discrimination do their parenting behaviors differ, and does that influence their teens? A new study in the journal Family Relations takes on the question of the effects of stresses related to race on youth – but focuses the question on stressors experienced by parents. The parenting of African American teens has been a focus of prior research on teen’s academic achievement and success, and positive as well as risk behavior. Some of the existing research has included a focus on parents’ experiences of discrimination, and how that shapes their parenting.

What prior studies haven’t done is consider how parents may anticipate discrimination or experience it vicariously, and whether that plays a role in parenting. This new study shows that personally experiencing discrimination is important, yet that racial discrimination doesn’t need to be individually experienced to influence parenting and teens’ wellbeing. In particular, when mothers witnessed or heard others’ stories of racial discrimination (which the authors call vicarious discrimination), there was an impact on teens.

Specifically, the study found that mothers who anticipated racial discrimination were more involved and vigilant with their teens, which was associated with better adjustment for their kids. For mothers who experienced vicarious discrimination, their teens had more problem behaviors – yet at the same time they were also more involved and vigilant as parents, which was related to lower internalizing problems and higher academic persistence among their teens.

These findings underscore that racial discrimination does not need to be personally or directly experienced in order to influence families. Just hearing about the discrimination of others can affect both parents as well as their kids. This is an important topic for future research, but also suggests that for teachers or counselors that work with families, racial stress doesn’t have to be a specific event to have consequences. A focus on a family’s exposure to racial stress – and their strategies to cope with it – could help parents and adolescents better manage these stressors. With so much attention to examples of racial discrimination circulating in the media, this new study shows that supporting African American parents is more important than ever.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by an infrastructure grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD, P2C HD042849) awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

Kathleen Holloway is a Doctoral Candidate in Human Development and Family Sciences at University of Texas at Austin. Fatima Varner is an Assistant Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at University of Texas at Austin. Stephen T. Russell is Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development and Director of the School of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin.