Re-Conceptualizing Parental Fear Part 1: From Trauma to FEAR (Facing Everything And Responding)

Choices: Staying there and taking it, or running the race smarter not harder.

            “Being president is being a jackass in a hailstorm.  There is nothing to do but stand there and take it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson
37th President of the United States

            When Jamal was 14, he was caught stealing orange juice from the Rogers.  He had money in his pocket to buy the juice and didn’t because his friends were stealing.  When I got the call he was in custody at the police station. I ran in the snow from Beacon Hill to the 12th Avenue police station to get him. 

            I had imagined Jamal beaten and bruised.  He turned out to be okay with no bruises and was not beaten.  The fear I had was that he would not be okay.  I will never forget that feeling of helplessness and fear.

            Jamal is currently a non-commissioned officer and squad leader serving with the armed forces in Afghanistan.

Tina (parent) age 55 Seattle, WA. 

   The story above relates to an experience that occurred 12 years ago.  It demonstrates that the trauma of “parental fear” remains a permanent fixture within the foundation of the psychological self.

   Tina is college educated and has been employed in the healthcare profession for 30 years.  She is married and a mother of three highly successful adult children.  She votes, pays her taxes and when so ordered, takes her turn on jury duty.  Her story is simply the concern of a parent who is fearful of harm that others in society can do to her son, and the willingness of the judicial system to hold them harmless for it.

     Tina is representative of a number of individuals who are law abiding citizens who feel uncomfortable or fearful regarding the safety of their loved ones and their interaction with members of a society that fears them.   These parents have come from a diversity of settings, professions and occupations ranging from police officers, lawyers, and nurses, to longshoremen, teachers and laborers.  If we assume that these are otherwise rational, functioning individuals then:


  • What is the basis of their fears?

  • What has been their experience interacting with American society?

  • What is the sense of reluctance in “trusting” those who are sworn to “protect and serve” their community?


When these questions were asked of Tina, she responded:

            “When it comes to young black males and police, there is that fear.”  They don’t have to be doing something wrong, they just have to be young and black.  I really believe this and I don’t see it getting better.”

     In previous At the Crossroads writings, the focus has been on the how the feeling of fear has been conceptualized.  Fear has been “used” by the “larger group,” i.e., family, community and society as an instrument of controlling the “journey of self-discovery” of the individual and to maintain his/her allegiance/commitment to the larger group.

     The larger group is impacted by stereotypes of other groups, which too are comprised of individuals.  In a previous writing, I defined a stereotype as:

            “A widely held, but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.  Realistically speaking, stereotyping only serves to reinforce the fears that are maintained by the larger group.”

     As a result, the largest unit of the larger group (society) authorizes sub-units (i.e., law enforcement, criminal justice and the judiciary) to create structures on its behalf to protect itself from the elements of society (ethnic minority populations) that are subjected to the stereotypes as created and reinforced by the larger society and believed by its members. 

     These sub-units are handed privileges to do what is necessary to maintain the safety of the larger group.  These privileges come in various forms and include authority, power and control.  Along with this come the instruments in which they are allowed to carry out their activities.  The instruments include the badge, various forms of weaponry and most importantly, the rule of law.

History has shown that whenever the “panic button” of the larger group regarding an individual of a stigmatized group (ethnic minorities) has been activated, all members of the stigmatized group are placed under suspect or observation until the larger group can return to its state of “safety.”  

     The difficulty here is that the individual members of the larger group are never able to achieve a sense of safety and therefore appear to be always on the edge of hyper vigilance and ready to immediately push the panic button (or pull the trigger) again, often at the appearance or imagined sense of fear. There is the premise or unconscious belief that reinforces the activation that the act or acts of one individual of the stigmatized group are representative of the behavior of the entire group.  However the larger group does not hold the same belief regarding accountability for its own group.  Specifically, the individual of the larger group upon committing an egregious act is immediately identified, separated and held to account for his/her actions.

It is without doubt that a society without law and structure would be laid to waste by the lawless.  It is without doubt that many who seek to serve in law enforcement and the judiciaries are honest, hard-working men and women who are committed to protecting and serving their communities.   However, it is essential for the reader and particularly the ethnic minority individual to understand that although these sub-units are formal institutions with complex structures, they are maintained by human beings who are members of the larger group.  These individuals come to the work environment, or in fact, any environment, and may bring both their internalized beliefs (stereotypes) and individual, personal agendas.

     It would be a gross failure for us to ignore the reality that such feelings are consciously or unconsciously integrated into the manner in which these individuals present themselves and interact with others.  The larger group takes on the responsibility of “training” the individual to have “respect” and “trust” for those who wear the “badge” (police and correction officers), wear the “robes” (judiciary) and others associated with the criminal justice community (probation and parole), but neglects to cover having that same respect for other fellow individuals.

     At the same time, the ethnic minority individual can reach a level of conflict and confusion when he/she observes that the “rule of law” being applied by those in positions of authority, power and control, does so differently, specifically on the terms of the complexion, color of skin and/or gender, and that behavior is mirrored by individuals and others in the larger group who do not have the responsibility of law enforcement.  That conflict is increased when ethnic minority individuals realize that they are being judged collectively for the act or actions of one individual.

     The person most vulnerable to abuse is the ethnic minority individual who is at the primary core of one of the sub-units within the larger group (family).  It is at this level that the main instruction on how to act or behave is reinforced on a daily basis by either a parent or responsible adult. 

     Subsequently, it becomes problematic for the ethnic minority parent/guardian/responsible adult to reinforce the message of expressing respect and trust, and belief in institutions in which they themselves may serve, yet openly watch the continuous incidents of behaviors among their peers and others that contradict the messages being sent to the ethnic minority individual, particularly adolescents and young adults.  The conflict, confusion and contradiction that no doubt results may create a sense of uneasiness for the ethnic minority parent/guardian/responsible adult, leading to fear regarding the inability to protect their loved ones from stereotypes or maintain a safe environment for the adolescent/young adult once he/she leaves the family residence. 

Tina, the parent in Seattle commented:

          “My son Calvin comes home from work at 2:00 a.m. sometimes.  I asked him if the police had ever stopped him.  He told me of an incident while he was walking home.  He was stopped and detained by three police officers riding on bicycle patrol. 

            They told him they were stopping him for his safety.  They asked him a few questions and then let him go.  It came out of nowhere, beginning and ending quickly.

            Stopping him for his safety?  He was walking alone, minding his own business.  He had not done anything, just walking.  I was skeptical and questioned the real motive for stopping him.  I am always concerned for him when he is out.  It is terrible to be afraid of the criminals and afraid of the police.  That leaves no one else.”

     These parental fears are reasonable.  These fears can be disabling as well as traumatic as parents seek ways to protect their children from the waves of emotional and psychological assaults (micro aggressions/ micro assaults) they are likely to encounter in their lives. 

     The story being told below is about an ethnic minority parent’s commentary regarding her feelings when her son leaves for the evening to spend time with friends:

            “My heart catches in my throat as I stand at the window of my suburban Maryland home and watch my 18 year old son drive away to meet friends for the evening.  Often before I hand him the car keys, I anoint him with oil, lay my hands on him and remind him of God’s love and protection. 

            And with that, I still can’t sleep until I hear him unlock the door.  My son insists I fuss over him too much, but in those three short years he has been a driver, he has already been stopped by cops more times than I have been in the thirty years I’ve had my license. 

            Once I asked him if he thought the police were there to serve and protect him.  He laughed, confessing that the idea had never crossed his mind.”



Question: What does the ethnic minority parent/responsible adult do in these types of situations? 


  • How do I protect my child and teach him or her? Young people can be so headstrong. 

  • How do I teach him or her how to interact with those in authority who may fear them for no other reason than their complexion, the color of their skin or gender?


Response:  First, teach your children to focus on “running and completing the race” and develop strategies that will get them to cross the finish line.  Second, teach your children to cease focusing on being “right or wrong” or “winning or losing.” 


  • Again the focus is on running and completing the race.  In this case, that means to leave the encounter alive and intact.  Our young people must want to understand that the larger group, in seeking to achieve a level of physical safety and emotional security, have designated a specific “class of individuals” over which to exercise authority, power and control in their (larger group) external environment.

  • If the focus is on proving who is right or wrong, winning or losing arguments or, even winning the struggle may result in losing a life or sustaining an injury.  However, if the focus is on “getting to the finish line,” then work to develop strategies that will allow your children to effectively disengage the conflict and avoid a violent encounter.  


Question:  Young people are headstrong and may not want to listen to what I (parent/responsible adult) have to say.  “What do I do?” “How do I get my son/daughter to listen to me?”


Response:  It appears you may be responding to “parental frustration,” which foundation is based on uncontrolled or unmanaged fear.  As parents, we must want to begin the process of cease “controlling or managing” the fear and work to “let go” of the fear. 


It is true that many young people think or feel that they, and not their elders, “know” what “is right” in the world they live in every day.  It may be that they chose to listen to their own inner voice rather than to the wisdom “offered” by the parent/responsible adult.


Learn to “swim or go with the current instead of against it.” 


  • Encourage your adolescent/young adult to “listen” to the “psychological self,” i.e., inner voice.

  • Encourage your young person to utilize the following model (which was written earlier in another At the Crossroads: “Fear & the Parent…My child, My child…Lord, Please Protect My Child.”  The model being “The Five R’s of RELIEF.

  • In utilizing this model, the young person can institute “transformation” in a timely manner.


RELIEF can begin/occur or be completed in a time span ranging from a few minutes to an undetermined period.  The factors of such will depend on the variables of time, place of occurrence of the incident and the individual involved.


Consequently, the model of RELIEF can be implemented in the following steps:

  • Respite– is a short pause, delay or cessation for a time, especially of anything distressing, difficult or unpleasant.  Here the individual takes a step “aside” and enters a psychological state of rest and relaxation.

  • Reaction-is the individual’s ability to internalize physically and mentally the external stimuli.  Here the individual must want to “own” the reaction.  Ownership must be “wanted “by the individual.  The reaction belongs to the individual and must not be shared with the external world.

  • Reflection-is the individual’s ability to absorb within, to calmly turn into the depth of thought and feelings.  Here the individual seeks to process (i.e., integration of thoughts and psychological self) that is associated with the incident which triggered (activated) the fear.  In doing so the individual seeks to come to terms with the self and in doing so “balance” one’s reaction.

  • Response-is an answer or reply, as in words or in action.  Here the individual “shares” with the external world his/her answer to the external stimuli, which triggered (activated) the fear.  As stated earlier, the individual must want to ensure that the response and reaction are not the same.  This would imply remaining in the state of “reflection” until “balance” has been achieved.  In doing so the individual maintains ownership (reaction) and shares (response) to the external world.

  • Reevaluation-is a formal or informal assessment or examination of something with the possibility or intention of instituting change.  Here the individual takes “a critical appraisal” of the incident, the emotion/feeling of fear that was triggered (activated) and how such as impacted his/her worldview.

Concluding Remarks

It is clear that the pressures associated with parenting the ethnic minority adolescent/young adult can be at times challenges and other times overwhelming in the struggle to either keep them safe or prepare them to enter a world that is often judgmental if not clearly hostile towards them due to either their complexion, color and/or gender.  To reduce parental stress, the ethnic minority parent is encouraged to change his/her view on how to assist the adolescent/young adult.

This can be achieved in the following manner:

  • Revise one’s conceptualization of respect and trust for “law and order”.   Teach your children to maintain “respect” for those who enforce the law and maintain order, but to know their rights.

  • As your children enter the stages of development of adolescence and young adulthood, assist them to revise and understand that “trust” is “earned” and not simply given away.

  • Assist them to understand that the “safety net” is trust that is earned on an individual basis and not be extended to a designated group or profession. 

  • Seek teach and model empowerment strategies; “The Five R’s of RELIEF.

  • Encourage the adolescent/young adult to change his/her focus from obtaining “power” (external- authority, power, control to seeking empowerment and internal-growth, development, reinforcement of self-esteem).

  • Role modeling, mentorship and examples are ways in which to encourage young people.  Learn the steps associated with the model Five R’s for RELIEF.  Teach and model the behavior to your adolescent/young adult.

  • End the stigma of “parental isolation.”  Join with other parents of ethnic minority adolescents/young adults.  Share your concerns.  You will find that you are not alone.


“Go slow and steady….cross the finish line.  Finish the race.”- Dr. Micheal Kane


Stay tuned in for the next crossroads… The journey continues…


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