Mental illness can be made more painful because of the attenuating circumstances that go along…
The Experience of Being ‘Other’ – Challenges Biracial Children Face
It sounds so middle school: “I’m depressed because I’m different. I don’t fit in.” Given the global nature of our online world and the melting pot nature of many urban areas, it is hard to imagine feeling marginalized or different in a way that matters. Everyone is different these days; in fact, being different is the new normal.
Being different from mainstream culture is just fine as long as you have a culture of your own to fall back upon. When being different means being marginalized and alienated from everyone—your own family or “tribe” included—that’s a horse of a different color, so to speak.
Sometimes it really is about color—skin color. Different can mean darker or lighter than everyone else. For people who are biracial, not fitting in means not looking like your family, and this can have major implications. It goes deeper than getting fed up with hearing the question “what are you?” again and again. The experience of being biracial, or what the media often calls “mixed race,” forms the core of your identity. Race is only one arena in which a mixed heritage can create that awful feeling of having no “home” or no roots—that you belong nowhere and to no one. Having parents of different religions, especially if either tradition involves a prohibition against marrying outside the group, can also create this feeling of not fitting in. Sometimes ethnicity or nationality can be a significant aspect of identity and culture, such that even having parents of the same race but from different countries can lead to children feeling like “half-breeds.”
Depression and Other Stress-Related Ailments
In 2003, the University of North Carolina released study results from survey research conducted with over 90,000 adolescents in the United States. The study indicated that the experience of being “mixed race” led to higher risk of developing depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues as well as physical complaints. The author of the study discussed the experience of being biracial or mixed race as a stressor, and described the study results as showing that being of mixed race is a source of stress. Other scholarly work on the experience of being biracial or identified as mixed race supports the findings of the UNC study — in essence that growing up as a mixed race kid is a significant stressor that can lead to depression and other health problems in adulthood.
Remember, one study does not “prove” anything, despite the large sample size. While it might make sense, intuitively, to consider being of a mixed background a stressor, there may also be preventive or protective factors to consider. Children from mixed backgrounds can have trouble finding a social “home” or have problems gaining acceptance from either parent’s culture, but they may also have powerfully positive experiences. Crossing the gulf of differences to find common ground, as their parents have done, may lead to unique strengths and the creation of new communities—new places to fit in. An important piece of the puzzle that the UNC survey did not address has to do with how the immediate family, and the closest people to children or teens—teachers, coaches, friends and friends’ parents—help them navigate the challenges and opportunities that come their way.
In the 10 years since the UNC survey research was reported, the prevalence of mixed marriages in the United States has not declined. Having parents of different religions, different races, or the same sex has become more common. Over time, the experience of feeling marginalized or uncomfortably different and not accepted—by peers, by family members, or by society—may well diminish or disappear. But given that racism still exists decades after civil rights legislation, it is safe to say that changing attitudes takes a long time.
What Can a Parent Do?
It sounds like I’m adding another rock to your backpack. As if maintaining a marriage while raising kids isn’t hard enough, now you have to worry that by choosing your partner you created your child’s risk of depression. And yet, you knew what you were getting into when you got married and you chose love over fear. That is good parenting, good role modeling, and a good place to start in terms of building the protective factors for your child.
You might not be able to eliminate the negative experiences your child is exposed to, but you can certainly build a foundation of positive ones. You can have a strong, positive, and protective impact upon your child’s mental health by creating an accepting community around your family—a community of friends and supportive people such as clergy, teachers, girl or boy scout leaders, mentors, and even adopted grandparents. Make and maintain family traditions and rituals, and if holidays or birthdays are stressful due to rough spots with family members who do not accept your partner or your child, be sure to have your own special celebrations. And be diligent about taking care of yourself and your own feelings: if you are sad, tense, or angry about the lack of acceptance your child is shown (and that would be very normal to experience, by the way), deal with those feelings so that you don’t act them out in other ways.
Acknowledge how you feel and what sacrifices or compromises you’ve had to make, and address any lingering resentments or sadness. Doing so will free you up to be fully present in the good times that lead to great memories that you will create for your child.