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Cultural Considerations for BIPOC Children Around Divorce in Play Therapy

Historical trauma can play a part in the way a family divorce is experienced.

Key points

  • At various points in history, many groups of BIPOC were forced to separate from family members.
  • Play therapists benefit from researching the historical traumas while working with a family.
  • Clinicians must be culturally responsive in their approach to treating families whose dynamics are changing.
Source: Lyrica Fils-Aime/Canva
Source: Lyrica Fils-Aime/Canva

Therapists, teachers, and parents generally understand that the family transition of a divorce can be a significant challenge for a child. Divorce, separation, breakups, and family rearrangements affect all children because their worlds are reorganized. We know that schedules will be altered, living situations will be adjusted, and parents may be in conflict.

What is not as widely discussed is how these factors intersect with a child’s cultural background. Does the ethnic background of a family impact the beliefs around their changes in dynamic? How can this experience differ between groups? How can a play therapist consider the cultural stigmas and impacts on a changing family structure? How do we understand historical factors around blended families, values regarding marriage, self-blame for being a single parent, and shame around divorce or breakups?

Whitehead (1997) notes that culture for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans in the United States shifted in the 1950s, and Americans began to focus on their individual interests rather than the collective. They started to recognize a personal sense of responsibility to care for oneself. This shift changed the way a family was constructed and maintained around “the pursuit of individual interest, choice, and freedom [...and less structured around] voluntary commitment, duty, and self-sacrifice” (Whitehead, 1997). Divorce, while still stigmatized, became more normal in a white-dominant society.

However, for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), marriage and divorce experience differing crossroads. At various points in history, many groups of BIPOC were forced to separate from family members. Enslavement, genocide, concentration camps, and deportation are all parts of our history in the United States and all over the world. These experiences impute a layer of historical trauma by institutions and governments for political gains.

For Black Americans and descendants of US slavery, family separation was a structure white enslavers relied on to maintain mass control of Black humans (EJI, 2024). Mass incarceration is both a historical and present trauma for Blacks (Coates, 2015), among many other issues imparted by the dominant culture (environmental racism, medical discrimination, police brutality, etc.). Then, there is the dangerous myth that Black fathers are absent parents (Berger, 2018). Black fathers are just as involved as those in any other racial group (Coles & Green, 2009).

For Indigenous peoples, genocide, forced removals, and land theft deeply impacted the construction of families. Then, kidnapping children and subjecting them to boarding schools as a tool for colonization disrupted family households (Sandefur and Leibler, 1996).

For Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the United States, who largely have low numbers of divorces, the effect of cultural values is the “invisible divorce,” where couples in many relationships exist more as roommates than as lovers or companions.

For undocumented immigrants and those who are at risk for deportation, a political strategy is to separate families, thereby creating a newer historical trauma upon family structures in the United States (Spagat, 2023).

Play therapists must learn about their clients' cultures and consider who has developed from collectivist societies, in which family is the priority. They still maintain these values today, despite the historical and cumulative traumas experienced. Play therapists and those working with children around family rearrangements of break ups, separation, and divorce benefit from researching the historical traumas of a racial group while working with a family. Learning about and understanding the potential shame and values that a culture holds can ensure that a clinician is more supportive and more culturally responsive to the family as a whole (Fils-Aime, 2024).


Dafoe Whitehead, B. (1997). The Divorce Culture. Knopf.

Berger, M. (2018). Revealing the Lives of Black Fathers. New York Times.

Coates, T. (2015). The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The Atlantic.

Fils-Aime, L. (2024). Cultural Considerations for BIPOC Around Divorce, Separation and Family Rearrangements Play Therapy Webinar. Pilon Harlem.

Coles, R. and Green, C. (2009). The Myth of the Missing Black Father. Columbia University Press.

Spagat, E. (2023). Federal judge prohibits separating migrant families at U.S. border for 8 years. PBS News Hour.

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