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Helping Kids Cope With The Trauma of School Gun Violence

Photograph Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recent school gun shootings in Florida and Maryland continue to remind us of the critical need to take action to process the trauma with our children and to protect our children in schools. Children’s exposure to gun violence is a primary national health care crisis, and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that gun violence is the second leading cause of death for children in the United States. The Brady Campaign reports staggering statistics of a daily average of 40 children and teens being shot and surviving, American children being killed by gun shootings 11 times more often than children in other high income countries, and the incidence of over 165 school shootings since the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics support these concerns, indicating that firearms are in the top 10 leading causes of injury deaths for children beginning at the age of 1 year.

An important study published in Pediatrics indicated that over 17.5 million or 1 in 4 school-aged children in the United States have been exposed to weapon violence in their lifetime, as either witnesses or victims. The results also suggest that 1 in 33 children (more than 2 million) have been directly assaulted with lethal weapons. The sample (N = 4,114) was a nationally represented survey of children (51% boys, 56.7% Caucasian, 18.8% Latino, 15.1% Black, and 9.4 Another Non-Latino Race) between the ages of two and seventeen years.

These statistics are staggering. It is critical that we step-up our efforts to help children with the trauma of exposure to gun violence given that being a victim or even a witness of violence results in significant levels of symptoms of trauma, depression, anxiety, anger, and aggression in youth. Most kids, if not exposed to violence directly, are exposed to gun violence through television, video games, movies, and social media. Hence, it is imperative that we begin conversations with our children to reduce the traumatic impact of gun shootings.

Here are some suggestions for necessary and effective interventions:

  • Parents, teachers, counselors and other caretakers can talk to children about what happened in simple and reassuring ways.
  • We can explain the traumatic incident to children in simple, non-graphic facts.
  • Kids know what happened. Keeping it a ‘secret’ or making up a story about it may only add confusion and mistrust. Kids may fear talking about it because it is a “secret or forbidden topic.” To create healthy dialogues, we can invite children to ask adults any questions they might have about what happened or about themselves and their loved ones.
  • Children often worry, “Will it happen to me? Can it happen at our school or in our neighborhood?” We can reassure and comfort children by telling them that this scary event is not an everyday occurrence, and that children are safe.
  • We can use simple words and simple sentences that avoid hate, racism, and fear. Young children grasp issues better when it is explained in emotionally neutral, brief, and clear ways. We can tell children that this is a very sad event that should never have happened.
  • We can reinforce and tell children that adults are working hard to keep all children safe – at home, at school, on the playground, and in the community.
  • We can turn our televisions off while children are in the room, and make sure adult conversations take place with only adults in the room.
  • We can help children mourn and grieve, and process their thoughts and feelings via books on loss, puppets, drawings, and stories.
  • My new book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death can serve as an excellent first step in the journey of healing. Where Did My Friend Go? is a therapeutic coping children’s picture book to be read by an adult to a young child (3-8 years), who has lost someone to a sudden or traumatic incident.
  • We can encourage kids to draw pictures, write a letter, or even give a toy to the families affected. Giving back is very healing, even for children.

Providing a positive, simple, and reassuring framework to explain and process the traumatic death shifts the content from terrifying and overwhelming to understandable and manageable. Although we cannot stop children from witnessing or hearing about terrible deaths, as in gun violence, suicide, terrorist attacks, and even car accidents, we can provide them with words and tools that foster coping, resilience, and adaptation.

Having reassuring and safe conversations with our children about gun violence is necessary, but insufficient. As leaders in our community, here are some suggestions for important interventions that we can implement to mitigate the chronic trauma and loss children are being exposed to:

  • Mental health professionals need to deliver support and treatment programs in schools, clinics, and shelters for children exposed to weapon violence.
  • Implementing standardized screenings and clinical interviews for exposure to lethal weapon violence as part of a well-visit exam at the pediatrician’s, and in schools, Head Starts, and ERs may further allow us to intervene at the early stages of symptom presentation.
  • The book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death is a cost-effective mental health intervention for children (3-8 years) who have been exposed to a traumatic death.
  • Parents, teachers, pediatricians, ER doctors, counselors, and social workers in schools, shelters, community clinics, and hospitals, who are the first to observe socio-emotional and physical symptoms in children, need to make referrals to community mental health centers as a first step assessment and intervention tool. Early intervention is prevention.

As we live in an increasingly violent world, it is essential that parents, educators, and other adult caregivers not forget the silent victims, the innocent bystanders, the children who are watching, listening, and feeling from the sidelines. It is imperative that we focus our resources on what is being defined as a national youth crisis by the experts in delivering cost-effective, immediate, school and community based mental health programs to children exposed to school gun shootings. As we well know, violence begets violence. Early intervention is prevention, and if one in four American children are being directly exposed to weapon violence, we need to step in now to break the intergenerational cycle of violence and the emerging mental health crisis related to trauma and gun violence.