Better World

New study sheds light on how structural racism can change kids’ brains

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A new study found that not only are Black children more likely than white ones to experience toxic stress — but that this toxic stress could lead to changes in the size and shape of certain areas of kids’ developing brains. Importantly, these specific areas of the brain are linked to mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

The research study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in February, defined toxic stress as “prolonged exposure to adverse experiences that leads to excessive activation of stress response systems and an accumulation of stress hormones.” The researchers pointed out that race-related trauma — whether witnessed or experienced firsthand — is a major contributor to toxic stress.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at MRI brain scans of thousands of 9- and 10-year-old Black and white kids across the country, and found that three particular areas of gray matter in the brain — which are known to process fear, threat perceptions, emotions, and memory — were on average slightly smaller in volume, size, and shape in the Black participants compared to the white participants. The researchers also surveyed the families about factors such as race, income, parental education, neighborhood environment, and conflicts at home.

The lead researcher, Nathaniel Harnett, Ph.D., stressed that the results shouldn’t be interpreted as a biological race-related difference in the children’s brains. Instead, he explained to, “They’re children with different experiences that shaped and molded how they develop, and how they might develop through to adulthood.”

Significantly, Dr. Harnett said, the size of these same brain regions is associated with certain mental health outcomes: “What we’ve seen in PTSD and, in some cases, depression and anxiety, is that the actual size of some of these brain regions, particularly the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, are smaller in individuals with PTSD compared to those without PTSD.”

How can families combat the toxic stress of structural racism?

First, parents, caregivers, educators, and providers of Black kids and other underprivileged children can become more aware about the link between toxic stress and PTSD so that they can ask the right questions when seeking and giving help.

“Research (shows) our kids being overly medicated, misdiagnosed, often labeled with ADHD or conduct disorder,” clinical therapist Chase Casine, based in New Orleans, Louisiana, told That’s because areas of the brain such as the amygdala (which processes fear, stress, and distress, and would be more active in cases of toxic stress) can cause a child to exhibit certain behaviors that look a lot like ADHD, even if it’s actually PTSD.

Listening to your children when they have a behavioral problem is key, said Melissa Vallas, M.D., a child psychiatrist, researcher, and Black mother of three adolescents based in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.

Instead of going straight to punishment, Dr. Vallas advises parents, find ways to connect with your child to find out what’s really going on with them. Working as a children’s psychiatrist “(puts) into perspective how easily kids can have these lives that parents don’t know,” Dr. Vallas said. “It teaches me a lot about the importance of the connection that you need to have with your kids in order for them to feel comfortable to communicate with you.” Here are some phrases to help you build a stronger relationship with your child.

It can also help to learn and practice mindfulness activities as a family to train your brains to react in healthier ways to stressful situations.

Finally, families of all racial backgrounds can make an effort to learn more about privilege and structural racism so that they can become active in disrupting the cycle. Here are some age-appropriate antiracism resources.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.