Published in Volume 23, Number 1 by Julie Collins and Emily Swoveland
Over the past few years, gun violence has risen to the forefront of public consciousness. Much of the debate has focused on gun regulation and keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of potential killers, particularly those with mental illnesses. Unfortunately, far less attention has been dedicated to the impact of gun violence on victims. While individuals killed and injured in atrocities such as the Sandy Hook and Aurora Theater shootings are publicly remembered and mourned, victims of these tragedies are not limited to those men, women, and children killed, injured, or present during these horrific events. The consequences of gun violence are more pervasive and affect entire communities, families, and children. With more than 25% of children witnessing an act of violence in their homes, schools, or community over the past year, and more than 5% witnessing a shooting, it becomes not just an issue of gun regulation, but also of addressing the impact on those who have been traumatized by such violence (Finkelhor et al., 2009).
Although mental health problems are part of the debate about gun regulation, the discussion has focused primarily upon the mental health of the perpetrators’ of gun crimes. In fact, most people with mental illnesses are not violent and are actually more likely to be victimized than they are to victimize others (Teplin et al, 2005). While much more can be done to address the problems of perpetrators with a mental illness, that conversation alone will not address the problems associated with gun violence. The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) believes it is time to broaden the focus of the gun debate to include the social, emotional, physical, and mental health impact of those traumatized by gun violence, especially children and youth. In their 2002 article “Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth,” James Garbarino and his colleagues pointed out that “children exposed to gun violence may experience negative short and long-term psychological effects, including anger, withdrawal, posttraumatic stress, and desensitization to violence” (Garbarino et al., 2002). They also indicate that the research shows that “certain children may be at higher risk for negative outcomes if they are exposed to gun violence.” The groups they identified “include children injured in gun violence, those who witness violent acts at close proximity, those exposed to high levels of violence in their communities or schools, and those exposed to violent media.”
Addressing the social, emotional, and physical well-being and mental health needs of children and youth exposed to gun violence is a complex process that requires proper identification of those exposed. It also requires a sufficient number of providers trained in age-appropriate, evidence-based, and trauma-informed treatments to concurrently understand all of these concerns. In addition, it requires our society to find ways to reduce the actual numbers of children and youth who are initially exposed to gun violence. This is no easy task, given the many settings in our world that contain violent situations or imagery: schools, homes, communities, and the media.
At CWLA’s 2013 National Conference, our staff and its Mental Health Advisory Board brought together professionals in the child welfare and mental health fields for a Listening Session on the topic of gun violence . Together, they started a dialogue about the often ignored impact of gun violence on the well-being of children, youth, families, and communities and discussed current efforts to address this issue; they also identified problems encountered in both policy and practice fields, providing suggestions and potential solutions. Influenced by CWLA’s National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare and its vision for all children and youth to grow up safely, with loving families and supportive communities, the conversation focused on the shared responsibility of individuals, families, organizations, and communities for ensuring the safety and well-being of children and youth. Specifically, participants focused on the culture of violence and fear in many of the communities they serve, the difficulties of combating gun use and violence, the need for community development that is focused on reducing violence, the impact on the children and youth exposed to violence, and what is needed to address the mental health needs of those exposed to gun violence.
Guns and Violence
CWLA’s National Blueprint voices the need to protect the fundamental rights of children and emphasizes the obligation that all individuals have in ensuring a safe and supportive environment for children and youth. In line with the National Blueprint, participants at our 2013 conference discussed the ways that service providers and communities were working to protect the rights of children in relationship to gun legislation. They also pointed out the necessity of addressing gun regulation and violence at the national level, fighting for legislative protections for children and youth.
Many participants voiced frustration with the role guns currently have in American society and their frequent glorification in the media. They pointed out that gun ownership is seen as a key American value, and that many citizens feel entitled to gun ownership and dislike interventions that limit their access. Unfortunately, gun ownership is often associated with the devastating violence that takes place in communities around the country–especially those in which there is a high poverty rate, which can increase the difficulty of preventing gun-based crime. Participants identified that frequent media portrayal of guns glorifies their use and promotes using gun violence as an acceptable means of conflict resolution. They pointed out that the media fails to provide the counter- message that guns are dangerous, should be stored properly, and are not to be used for conflict resolution.
Given the current climate citing personal liberties vis-a-vis the United States Constitution, participants recognized that changing American values regarding gun ownership is an unrealistic goal. They agreed that the focus should be on providing gun education and gun safety training to gun owners and non-owners alike. In addition, communities should have access to accurate information regarding the realities of gun use, such as the annual number of gun homicides and the number of children killed by guns. They suggested that efforts must be made to counter the glorified image portrayed in the media by teaching proper gun use, illuminating the dangers guns pose to children and youth, and explaining alternatives to gun ownership for ensuring personal and home safety.
Conference participants also voiced concerns about the pervasive culture of fear and violence that exists in many of the commu- nities they serve. At the community level, participants observed that guns are often used in response to fear. They pointed out that children and youth living in violent neighborhoods feel at risk; without nonviolent conflict-resolution skills, they too readily depend on guns to solve problems. Garbarino and his colleagues, likewise, stated that “exposure to gun violence also can desensitize youth to the effects of violence and increase the likelihood that they will use violence as a means of resolving problems or expressing emotions.” Often, it is only through carrying and using weapons that these youth feel safe, secure, and protected. But despite gun ownership, many children and youth remain unprotected from the violence within their communities.
Participants noted that fighting a community’s culture is an uphill battle that is netting few positive results. All agreed that when communities, families, children, and youth are empowered to work together and challenge negative values, they can begin to change the culture of violence and reduce community-wide fear. While not a quick process, is essential to encourage communities to take ownership of the safety and well-being of all children, youth, and families. Consistent with the standards in CWLA’s National Blueprint, conference participants further suggested working one-on-one with families, children, and youth to help them build their protective factors, develop resiliency, regulate their emotions, strengthen coping strategies, and transform negative life views into ones of hope for a better future. There was also widespread agreement about the importance of teaching parents how to model nonviolent behaviors for children and educating them on positive methods of discouraging violent alternatives.
In addition to shifting community acceptance of violence at a micro level by working with families, children, and youth directly, participants suggested that child welfare and mental health agencies must also encourage neighborhood residents to become connected to one another and oppose violence at the macro level–i.e., within the greater community. Agency leaders and those who provide services can encourage these changes by nurturing residents’ social connections and fostering strong social networks within the community. Once united with the larger community, they will be in a position to more easily influence the needed systematic changes to norms and values.
Effects on Child Development
The consequences of exposure to violence on child development are very real. CWLA’s National Blueprint points out that children and youth exposed to chronic trauma can experience inhibited brain development, producing a lasting impact on life outcomes. Likely a result of such exposure, participants noted numerous skill deficits among the children and youth they serve who live in neighborhoods that have high rates of poverty and crime. As suggested by the research, many children experience problems with violence and aggression because they lack nonviolent conflict-resolution skills. Much of this violence and aggression is further exacerbated by emotional overload from exposure to violence. Children and youth exposed to violence experience significant stress, and often struggle to identify and regulate their emotions, as a result of developmental impacts from their frequent exposure to trauma. Their emotions are often internalized and can later erupt in aggression and violence.
The Listening Session attendees also acknowledged that these skill deficits can be the result of children and youth learning behavior through observing and mimicking the actions of those around them. When adults exhibit aggressive and violent behavior, such behavior is often interpreted as appropriate and acceptable. A cycle of violence starts when children and youth observe and embrace negative adult behaviors and, eventually, model such interactions with their own children. With much at stake, a laundry list of strategies and supports was offered to address the impact on child development and reduce the negative impact of exposure to violence. Participants lauded the importance of early, family-level prevention, suggesting that parents must be assisted in accessing the social services necessary to strengthen protective factors, build resiliency, help their children regulate their emotions, develop coping skills, and provide physical and psychological safety.
Participants also identified numerous skills that must be taught directly to children and youth affected by violence to reduce the impact of traumatic stress, including conflict-resolution skills that demonstrate simple problem-solving techniques that are nonviolent and/or force-aversive. In addition to developing communication skills, children and youth need to be taught to identify and regulate their emotions; once they better understand their emotions and how they affect their behavior, they can learn how to appropriately respond to their feelings in ways that are not harmful to themselves or others.
Mental Health Concerns
The Listening Session attendees recognized that until child and youth exposure to violence is eliminated, childhood mental health problems will likely continue to grow. The group noted that they are witnessing dramatic growth in the number of children and youth with mental health problems, and that service providers must actively work to educate the public on childhood mental illness. Mental illness continues to be stigmatized, and public hesitancy to discuss the matter is detrimental to children and youth who are impacted by mental health problems. It was further noted that many parents, teachers, and workers are often uneducated regarding mental health conditions and, as a result, fail to identify early signs of mental illness, delaying child and youth access to treatment. It was pointed out that even once treatment is received and a diagnosis is given, many adults lack knowledge about specific mental illnesses and are unsure of how to interact with children and youth with a mental health problem. Without proper education, parents, teachers, and other well- meaning figures may unknowingly exacerbate a child or youth’s mental health problems.
In addition to reducing risk factors and developing protective factors and resiliency among youth currently suffering from mental health problems, professionals agreed that communities must also help children and youth at-risk of mental health problems develop protective factors to shield them from the negative mental health outcomes that frequently result from exposure to traumatic life events.
Summing it Up
Preventing childhood exposure to violence and mitigating the impact of previous exposure is too large a job for any one group or organization. Child welfare, prevention, and mental health agencies cannot tackle this problem alone. Agencies must embrace the message of CWLA’s National Blueprint and encourage communities to take responsibility for the well-being of children and youth. Combating the negative impact of violence on children and youth requires the collaboration of teachers, principals, social workers, police officers, doctors, parents, friends, and more. Each person has a role to play, be it screening for exposure to violence, mitigating the impact of violence through emotional support, or preventing violence through community activism and policy initiatives. Only when all facets of society recognize the true negative impact that exposure to violence has on the well-being of children, youth, families, and communities, and actively work to address this problem, will substantive change take place.
While it will take collaboration between various agencies and specific communities for a significant drop in child and youth exposure to violence to occur, many professionals are actively fighting this battle. Doctors around the country are talking to parents of young children about gun safety and protecting their children from harm. Teachers, principals, and school administrators are actively working with students, reinforcing pro-social behaviors and teaching conflict-resolution skills. Religious figures of all faiths are teaching children and youth about loving themselves, others, and their communities, and about how to be morally centered people. Social workers are educating parents on positive childrearing to reduce exposure to domestic violence and other home-based traumas. Lobbyists and politicians are fighting for legislation that increases access to mental health services and limits public access to guns.
All of these professionals, and many more, are actively working to reduce violence and improve the well-being of children and youth across the country. Individually, they make small but meaningful contributions to the effort, but together, as a united front, these individuals and agencies can make a significant impact in the lives of children and youth exposed to violence in their homes, at their schools, and in their communities. Recent incidents like the Fort Hood shooting once again raise the issue of gun violence. Although this happened on a military base, children, youth, families, and the surrounding communities have all been impacted. While the issue of gun violence seems stalled in this current Congress, it continues to be a central concern for all of us.
CWLA’s Listening Session helped begin the dialogue on current efforts to prevent child and youth exposure to violence and mitigate the impact of previous exposure. Now is the time for all to come together and finish this discussion. n
Julie Collins is CWLA’s Director of Standards for Practice Excellence. Emily Swoveland served as an intern at CWLA in 2013. The authors offer special thanks to Linda Spears and Andrea Bartolo.
Garbarino, J., Bradshaw, C.P., & Vorrasi, J.A. (2002). Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth. The Future of Children, 12(2), 73-87. Retrieved fromhttps://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/12_02_05.pdf.
Finkelhor, D., et al. (2009). Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey.Juvenile Justice Bulletin, October 2009. Retrieved fromhttps://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf.
Teplin, L., et al. (2005). Crime Victimization in Adults With Severe Mental Illness: Comparison With the National Crime Victimization Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 911-921.