Persistent unemployment has heightened stress in many black households across the United States. Relationships are strained. Homes have been lost. Personal debt is increasing. Medical insurance coverage is lacking.

Now, experts say the effects of economic strife are also affecting the mental health of children in these households.

Blacks continue to have the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group — 16.1 percent — according to unemployment statistics released today. And, while children from any background can react negatively to parental stress, black children are uniquely affected.

“Children are very observant,” says Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. “They are attuned to changes in mood, changes in your tone of voice, whether you look fatigued and your energy level.”

Dr. Michael Pratts, clinical assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical Campus, agrees: “Children take emotional cues from their parents. A stressed parent causes a stressed child.”

Since children, especially younger children, do not possess the vocabulary or emotional maturity to express their own stress, it manifests in other ways.

“They will throw the doll against the wall, or aggressively assert themselves,” says Dr. Breland-Noble. “They won’t yell at mom, so they will yell at the best friend, or go to school and have a smart response to the teacher.”

Slightly older children may exhibit signs of depression often mistaken for laziness or stereotypical teenage moodiness, Dr. Breland-Noble says. This includes sleeping significantly more or less, irritable or angry behavior and eating a lot more or a lot less than usual. Some children will become preoccupied with death. Others will resort to risky behaviors, such as sexually promiscuity.
In black households, unemployment has additional distinct features.

In a study of 7,000 households, black middle-class children whose parents lost their jobs were three times more likely to postpone plans for college. Instead, some of these children entered the workforce in order to financially support the household, observed Ariel Kalil, the study author and developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago.

An older study, also by Kalil, showed that children of single mothers who remained unemployed for an extended period of time developed lower self-esteem and were more likely to drop out of school. Nearly half of all black households are run by single mothers.

However, Dr. Carl C. Bell, who has practiced for almost 40 years, and serves as director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says, “Adversity is not necessarily a bad thing.”

In the case of a working parent who was once emotionally distant and consumed by work, staying home during unemployment may have positive effects on the children. It is also beneficial for the child to see more gender equality, if, for example, dad is home helping with more of the domestic duties, Dr. Breland-Noble says.

Dr. Bell believes that post-traumatic growth — or the emotional development that happens following adversity — can have long-term psychological benefits, and is key to managing stressful events moving forward. “It forces you to realize what’s really important,” he says.

Experts do agree that children who feel safe, have a good sense of who they are, have solid relationships with others, and whose parents are resilient tend to cope better than other children. Parents are encouraged to have open, age-appropriate dialogue with their children about the anticipated stress and lifestyle changes at the start of the unemployment period.