How gun violence can trigger trauma in children

Posted at 4:30 AM, Jul 26, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. – A Norfolk psychologist says the string of gun violence targeting children and teens across Hampton Roads can trigger trauma and mental health problems in young people.

“Exposure to community violence, including witnessing those shootings and the hearing gunshots even make it harder for them to succeed in school,” said Dr. Barbara Shabazz.

A News 3 investigation revealed more than 20 children and teens have been injured or killed since Memorial Day in Hampton Roads, and the numbers keep rising.

“Children exposed to violence, crime and abuse are more likely to abuse drugs, suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Shabazz. “Sometimes they resort to aggressive and violent behavior themselves and engage in criminal activity.”

Dr. Shabazz said it’s important to pay attention to any behavior changes in children.

“If you find that your child is isolating themselves - for instance, if you find that they're avoiding activities that they usually love to engage in; if you find that they are struggling in general to complete their daily activities that they usually don't have any problems completing, then there might be a sign that it's time to reach out for some help,” Shabazz said.

The psychologist said it’s important not to brush children’s emotions about neighborhood violence under the rug.

“We can't just power through it. It's not going away until we deal with it,” said Dr. Shabazz. “We have to feel our feelings. And a lot of times we don't have permission from the people in our lives who we’re watching, who we’re modeling our behaviors after, and that's not sustainable because what we don't repair doesn't go away. So, we have to know that that suppressing it is not a sustainable option.”

Dr. Shabazz said there are several ways to seek mental health treatment for your children. You can ask your child’s pediatrician, primary care doctor or insurance company for a referral. Local medical schools, like EVMS, can offer free or reduced counseling sessions if you don’t have insurance to cover the cost of therapy. There are other affordable ways to find mental health treatment.

The National Association of School Psychologists offers several tips to help children cope with gun violence, including:

  • Validate their feelings
  • Make time for them to share
  • Limit exposure to violence

You can find the complete guidance from NASP here.

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