Children’s Responses to Trauma
With gun violence in the headlines almost every day, parents face the hard decision of how to address the issue with their children or teens. Children and teens are exposed to information they may or may not be ready to understand; it’s even hard for adults to make sense of it all. The reality of gun violence might also be close to home and a daily threat to children in their neighborhoods or homes. Recent mass shootings have prompted school districts everywhere to conduct school shooter drills, and even kindergartners are not immune. Talking to children and adolescents about gun violence may be unavoidable in today’s climate, especially when it’s impacted you and your family. Here are some things you might want to consider:
- The age and maturity of your child
- Safety and security are important to everyone, but especially to children
- Signs and symptoms of trauma are different in children and adolescents when compared with adults
- There are things you can do to support your child
Children and Trauma
A trauma happens when someone feels threatened with serious harm, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional and is all too common. Researchers have learned trauma can change how the brain and body work, which can lead to diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and mental health disorders. This is important because the full impact of trauma may not appear for years. Not everyone who experiences a trauma will have long-term effects but for some, the impact of trauma can last for a long period of time.
Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma and may uniquely suffer from its effects because of their developing ability to understand and process what has happened. There are different stages of childhood development and children’s understanding of complex issues, ideas and the world around them is different from stage to stage. Younger children may see things, hear things and experience other sensations they do not comprehend. They may not yet be able to speak or have the vocabulary to express themselves or have their needs met. Because they are inexperienced and may not know what is dangerous, children rely heavily on parent and other adults to guide them, help them, and keep them safe. They don’t connect cause and effect and sometimes believe their thoughts have the power to make things happen.
For children, safety and security are very important. Unlike children, adults have the capacity to process their emotions and thoughts about what has happened. They too may have difficulty making sense of things, but they do have the ability to rebuild and create new meaning in their lives. Children need the help of adults to do the same. Assure your children you are doing all you can to keep them safe and secure. Let them know that’s your job as their parent.
If children are traumatized by what they hear and see, they may show the signs and symptoms of trauma, which include:
- Increased thoughts and discussion about death
- Increased concern for a parent’s safety, or the safety of siblings or friends
- Problems with eating or sleeping
- Difficulty focusing in school or acting out during class
- Problems finishing homework
- Difficulty separating from parents
- Avoiding school or activities they usually love
- Expressions of fear or anxiety
- Defiance at home or school
- Changes in friendships or other significant relationships
While individually these signs and symptoms may or may not be a big concern, in combination with one another they might be something you would want to address. Monitoring these signs and symptoms and talking with your child about them may give insight as to why they are happening.
For some youth, violence is a daily experience. This ongoing traumatization due in part to gun violence may seriously disrupt a child’s development and cause signs and symptoms that are far more complicated than those that might happen after a single traumatic event. These include increased depression, substance abuse, other risky behaviors, homeless and poor school performance. Being victimized by crime as a child or during the transitional period to adolescence also increases the odds of them becoming perpetrators of crimes.
What You Can Do
Be present and listen. Turn off the phones, tablets and the television. Ongoing exposure to world events can feel overwhelming to children and teens. When you reduce screen time, you give you and your children a chance to interact with one another. This might give you a chance to talk with your child about concerns they may have. By listening to them, your children feel validated and cared for and you stay informed about the things that concern them.
Give simple, honest answers to questions. Use age-appropriate language when talking with your children. Younger children don’t need long answers with lots of details. You might be surprised how a short, pointed answer will do the trick. With teens, however, their ability to think more abstractly may bring them to ask more difficult questions about how gun violence touches society politically, socially and morally. Take the opportunity to sit and listen. Like adults, children and teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation when they have the facts about it.
Watch for signs and symptoms of trauma. Children do hear and see stories about gun violence. They may have a friend or classmate who was impacted by gun violence, or a shooting may have occurred in your community or within your family. Some youth reside and go to school in areas where violence is a regular occurence and they are more at risk for trauma and its psychological effects. Whether it’s close to home or something they hear on the news, ongoing exposure to gun violence can take its toll on your child. Watch for the signs and symptoms of trauma. Talk to your child to see if what you are seeing is connected with a recent shooting incident, and consider counseling for your child.
Create a safe environment for them. Everyone needs to feel safe and secure in order to live fully and thrive. The constant threat of gun violence can disturb any sense of safety your child might have. Let your children know you are there for them and you are making sure to let them know you are doing everything you can to keep them safe. Teens also need this reassurance. Maintain a regular routine as much as possible as well as expectation around chores, schoolwork and other rules of the house. Routines create a sense of safety and stability.
Take time for yourself and honor your feelings. The news of gun violence, or your experience of gun violence can cause trauma to you. In order to help your children, you’ll need to also make certain you are taking care of yourself. Self-care practices are also a great way to model resiliency and positive coping for your children. Eating well, staying active, getting rest and doing things you enjoy are all ways of practicing self-care.
When to Seek Professional Help
It might be hard to know if therapy with a mental health professional is needed. If signs and symptoms continue for a long time and they begin to interfere with everyday life, it might be time to talk with someone. Ask yourself “Is my experience causing me ongoing pain that seems to be getting worse, not better?” Or, “Are there areas of my life that are suffering because I don’t have the energy to take care of them?” A trauma counselor or therapist who understands trauma can help process the traumatic event and can help decrease its effects. For children or teens who have experienced several traumas and are facing ongoing stress may be more at risk for developing ongoing symptoms.
To find additional resources, please go to the Finding Help section of our web page.
DISCLAIMER. This information does not and cannot constitute or substitute medical advice. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is an organization dedicated to educating and bringing awareness around the issue of gun violence prevention, and does not provide treatment advice. This fact sheet merely provides general information and coping tips. More importantly, mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician. Everytown suggests that this page is a good starting point to discuss potential needs with your physician or other health care practitioner.