Ask A Therapist: On Protecting Black Children from Trauma and Dealing with Narcissistic Family Members

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer two questions each month for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

This month, readers asked the Emerald about helping a partner or friend get counseling or therapy they may need and about how to tell when we are over-parenting our children.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know.* We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

I know that childhood trauma contributes to adult mental illnesses. In an effort to protect my black children from harm in the world, I fear that I may be causing trauma, fear and anxiety. I think I put undue pressure on them to be perfect in order to avoid being seen as the unruly black child or aggressive black male. How to I break this cycle and nurture my children while still protecting them?

This is such a powerful question and illustrates a dilemma that many parents of black children face. There is no “right” answer, but I will do my best to provide some hope for managing this.

You are correct in the connection between childhood experiences of trauma and mental illness. There’s also a correlation between trauma and our physical health. defines trauma as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. While this is an adequate definition, I don’t think it does a good enough job conceptualizing the experience of black folks in this country.

One could argue that our entire existence in the United States has been a deeply disturbing and distressing experience. With this as our history, of course you want to protect your child from harm, problem is harm is potentially everywhere. There’s enough data out there illustrating that black boys are seen as being older than they are, of being aggressive, unruly, etc. Black boys are suspended and/or expelled at higher rates than their white peers. I believe we do our black children a disservice if we don’t inform them of the world they walk in.

The job of all parents is to protect, teach and prepare their children for the world they live in. Parents of black children have the added burden knowing the unique experiences their children will face. There’s a reason parents of black kids, especially black boys, give “the talk” about how they should act if pulled over by the police. This talk isn’t meant to create fear or anxiety, but instead to increase the chances that our children return home safely.

Here’s the definition of trauma that I prefer: Trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope, leaving us disconnected from our bodies. This definition places the focus, not solely on the event(s), but on coping strategies, as well as, connection with who we are.

So how do we respond? First, I don’t believe we should run from the issue. While I appreciate your concern about pressuring your child, you still have to prepare him for living in the world as a black male.

I asked my mom about how she went about raising me. To this day, if you ask my mom about her sons, she will tell you that we are perfect, that we are smart, that we are gorgeous, and any other positive message she could come up with. I asked her what her motivation was for these messages. She told me that she wanted to make sure that when the world took from us by questioning our ability, our place, our looks or any of the other negative stereotypes associated with blackness we would still have enough to move on.

If our trauma response is related to our resources being depleted, one way we can protect our children is by consistently filling their cups. Consistently tell your children how worthy they are, how beautiful and talented they are. Find places where they are celebrated so their tanks are full before they go back out into unsafe spaces. While not foolproof, it does provide a framework that allows for both nurturing and protecting.

I hope this has been helpful and best to you and your family.

—Roy Fisher

When I was a child, I thought of my grandmother as a person so perfect they could never do anything to hurt another person. I have (somewhat) recently realized how difficult it is to be around her. Some could describe her as a narcissist who constantly tears you down and makes you feel worth less than a person. I recently got engaged and am faced with the big question: do I invite her to the wedding? When I try to discuss the difficult topic with my parents I have been given two responses: “They’re still your family!” and “Tell me what to tell them and I’ll handle it.” Any advice for my big day?

Dear Reader,

You had me hooked at the word “perfect.” Let me explain why. When you write that your grandmother “could never do anything to hurt another person,” this could easily sound like a heart-tugging tale of reverence for a loved one. That is, unless you are a therapist. I sit with tearful and anxious or depressed people hour after hour who tell me that they feel they are failing at everything, or have extreme distress of some kind, and they often go on to say that the origin of the problem could never come from their childhood, because their caregivers were entirely faultless. I start to wonder, could they really have been “perfect”? The answer, I have found time after time, is no. And the reason is that we are all flawed human beings.

In sitting with people and listening deeply to their stories for many years now, I have come to understand that each and every one of us has an enormous capacity both for loving and for damaging one another. The comedian Chris Rock once said, “You can only offend me if you mean something to me”.

So, to know a person well is to know how (not if) they are capable of hurting us. When this knowledge is muted entirely, and we call out a family member as “perfect,” there is likely something much more complex going on. Put simply, it’s a trait of abuse (or severe dysfunction) that causes this to be felt as true. Good care is absorbed by children into a felt sense of safety, and therefore taken for granted. The reverse is also true: poor care causes us to have defenses that disrupt healthy development by shielding unbearable hurt from being known and felt. When we describe harmful caregivers as “perfect” it is because we don’t have the safety to be able to see them in their fullness, and through a healthy lens, which invariably would make them good at some things, not great at others. In other words, human.

As for your wedding, Reader, I would encourage you to self-reflect on where you are today on your journey of independence from her and the effects of her dysfunction in your life. Though it’s true that ending or drastically altering abusive relationships is a key to success in adult life, I’ve yet to encounter someone for whom healing family trauma is simple or straightforward. One final consideration is what the lasting effect will be of not inviting her. Sometimes the path of least resistance is easiest on us. But rest assured: having personal empowerment enough to choose whether or not to host her at your wedding is a distinct step away from the dysfunction of the past. It’s your day, so it’s definitively your choice.

—Liz Covey

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Liz Covey

Liz Covey, LMHC, LMT, is a counselor and parent coach with a private practice in South Seattle working in the specialty area of attachment, adoption, and trauma, with children, families and individual adults. She is also a trainer, presenter, and writer on topics related to the changing face of mental healthcare, disseminating ideas and practices aimed at improving mainline therapeutics so that they are more inclusive, holistic, and effective. Liz is a Rainier Beach resident, and the extremely proud parent of two incredible school-aged kids.

Roy Fisher

Roy Fisher has a BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MA from Pacific Lutheran in Marriage and Family Therapy. With over 10 years of experience in various roles as a clinician, consultant, supervisor, and teacher, Roy has seen the positive impact of engaging others in thoughtful dialogue.

*South Seattle Emerald’s Ask A Therapist advice comes from professionals and are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice and are not a substitute for professional mental health care. By submitting your question, you are agreeing to let South Seattle Emerald use it, in part or in full, and it may be edited for length and/or clarity.

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