“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 can 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.
Akili: What can we as adult Black men do to address and deal with our inner child trauma?
Gotel: One thing that Black men can do to help to resolve inner child trauma is to cultivate awareness of our systems of meaning. What I mean by that is the ability to recognize when behavior reactions to someone else’s behavior are being seen through the lens of adverse childhood experiences. Awareness is the antidote to impulse. Awareness puts you in a position to choose—a different way of thinking, a different behavior. In order to heal, you have to open up the emotional baggage, suppressed material of past hurts and confront it. Feel it. Name it.
Akili: What would you say to Black men who feel this work is not important?
Gotel: To Black men who feel this work is not important, I say watch the local evening news. The local headlines are rife with stories about felony crimes—domestic violence, murder— There is always a back story pointing back to a “troubled childhood,” unresolved childhood trauma. There has been a great cost to communities and families already when the emotional needs of Black men and men in general are disregarded and the emotional expression of Black men is stifled by messages such as “be a man,” “man up,” or “big boys don’t cry.”
Akili: What do we as people who love Black men, need to do to help Black men and boys grow emotionally and heal? What's the best way we can be supportive in creating a healing community?
Gotel: What we must do above all things is preserve childhood and ensure that parents across the spectrum of financial affluence have the tools and means to make home an extended learning environment for their kids; that Black boys and Black girls—all children—experience enough of the “Crucial C’s” in childhood that build resilience and a healthy sense of self as they face life’s challenges and changes.
All children need four interpersonal experiences regularly in childhood to develop a healthy sense of self. These are the four Crucial C’s developed by psychologists Amy Lew and Betty Lou Bettner that I refer to often in my work.
We all need to feel Connection (I belong), Capable (I can do it), I Count (I matter, I can make a difference) and Courage (I can handle what comes). When children don’t experience enough of the Crucial C’s, they will act out in any of the four ways: Attention seeking, revenge, power/control or avoidance/withdrawal. When Black boys act out, the penalties and stigmatization is greater. We can ensure healthy social-emotional development of Black boys by providing experiences with Crucial C’s.
Akili: The message is clear: the little boys in all of us are begging to be reconciled with. Black boys in this country need our support in cultivating and maintaining emotional literacy. Black men need to get support in cultivating healthy emotional lives. This is a pressing priority for the wellness of the Black community. If national entities can build campaigns to support Black men and boys with ties, business suits and coding skills, then we can do the same with teaching emotional literacy that is informed by Black feminist and Womanist theory. Because all the other things are useless if they only serve to remake us into emotionally dead patriarchs who cannot nurture our families and communities. Our communities need black men, all Black men—gay, heterosexual, trans, disabled—to show up and be present, and be loving full adults. The inner child in you needs the same.
About The Therapist:
Douglas Gotel, LICSW, RPT is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist.
He maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. and has extensive experience providing behavioral health services in school settings and community-based settings as both as a clinician and administrator. He specializes in child-centered play therapy, sand tray therapy and cognitive therapy.
A graduate of the Howard University School of Social Work, Mr. Gotel has been a presenter at The Center for School Mental Health National Conference and the Mental Health Association of the District of Columbia. He is a member of the Association for Play Therapy. For more information about Mr. Gotel’s work, visit www.douglasgotel.com
*Person’s name and story have been changed to protect confidentiality, personal account from an open forum on masculinity and maleness.