“When he would yell at my mother, I would start crying. I didn’t know any better. I was only 6. As soon as I started sniffling he would turn around and scream “Shut up Sean!! Don’t be no f*cking punk!” I was so scared. I was scared he would hate me like I thought he hated my mother. I learned from that to shut up whatever feeling I was goin through. Back then it was fighting other kids. As I got older I would drink, smoke, or just zone it out. Years later being with my own kids made me realize something was wrong. I was angry all the time. I started to see that I had been doing something that was pushing me away from people I cared about….”*
What happens to little Black boys, who learn to hate their feelings? Who do they become? What is the “inner child” and how is this all connected? The answers to these questions aren’t easy to hear. Nor are they as one dimensional as we might imagine.
The “inner child” represents the emotionality and perceptions we learned as children that, if left un-engaged, we carry on as adults. For all Black children, our inner perceptions are highly likely to be informed by a number of traumatic experiences. Despite this, African American Americans overall are not likely to access mental health services, much less Black men. This creates a considerable challenge: On one hand Black men and boys are traumatized constantly. But on the other hand, we are not given emotional tools to transform that pain. We are taught, like Sean, masculine norms that do not support mental health. The consequence of this is evident: climbing rates of suicide, abuse, and assault against ourselves, Black women and Black gender non-conforming individuals.
To explore this further, I spoke with Washington D.C based Therapist Douglas Gotel. Gotel has been working with African American men and boys for nearly 10 years and had much to say on how inner childhood trauma is playing a role in Black men’s lives.
Akili: How do you see child trauma impacting Black men and boys?
Gotel: Trauma literally changes the emotional map in the brain, it alters perception. Left unaddressed, these emotional imprints can negatively impact perceptions held by Black men (and any person); perceptions of self, others and circumstances that can cause problems in every relationship in a person’s life. For men, it often manifests as anger or rage, a product of fear and powerlessness.
Akili: How have you seen inner child trauma show up in working with adult African American men?
Gotel: I remember a time as an intern on a home visit, witnessing what unresolved inner child trauma looked like in vivo. I was visiting with a single father who was doing the best he could trying to raise his teenage son to keep him out of foster care. Their relationship was, in a word, combustible. As I look back on that home visit, what I witnessed were two people with unmet needs, two child states in conflict. A young man, who had been abandoned by his mother, his defiance fueled by competition with his father’s girlfriend for his father’s attention; a father, who could not read, conflicted with wanting nurturing and attention from his girlfriend and feeling his authority challenged by an acting-out teen. Both had childhood traumas of parental separation.
The young man had skipped school the day before and I arrived in the middle of an altercation between father and son. The father literally had a tantrum before me. He was jumping up and down, stomping, fists clinched, screaming at the young man saying, “You don’t appreciate anything I do for you!” The best I could do in that moment was to create some space between them before it got physical. The father, with his own emotional needs, was not ready developmentally to parent. This is one way that unresolved childhood trauma can show can show up in relationships, explosive anger. When we are faced with unmet needs, particularly attachment needs of feeling safe, secure, comforted and validated from those with whom we have community, how we respond to those unmet needs is reflective of the degree that our inner child has been nurtured.