The central theses
- Exposure to gun violence can create traumatic disruptions in a child’s life and affect their long-term health and development.
- Most children with traumatic exposure go unidentified or do not receive appropriate treatment.
- Community support can aid in the healing process, but resources for individual therapy are limited and inaccessible.
The mass shooting in Uvalde killed 19 primary school students and two teachers, leaving the community in grief and despair. This also prompted many in the United States to reevaluate and debate the devastating effects of gun violence.
Early exposure to gun violence could create immediate and traumatic disruption in a child’s life and affect their health and development in the future.
“Everyone has a short-term response and an immediate change in health and behavior,” Lisa Jaycox, PhD, MA, a senior behavioral scientist and director of RAND-Initiated Research at RAND Corporation, said Verywell. “Some people gradually recover and others don’t.”
After experiencing a traumatic event, stress reactions such as separation anxiety, trouble sleeping, and irritability are common in children. But these experiences often go away in a few months, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
People who experience long-term stress that interferes with their lives can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The PTSD rate among mass shooting survivors can be over 50%.
Children between the ages of 5 and 12 may not have PTSD flashbacks like adults, but they are more likely to misremember events. Younger kids can even play shooting games after witnessing a school shooting.
But most children with traumatic experiences go unidentified or do not receive appropriate treatment, particularly those from minority ethnic groups or living in poverty.
Acute Stress Disorder
People who present PTSD symptoms but do not meet the time criteria for a diagnosis may be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), a condition in which people experience the same signs and symptoms of PTSD within the first month after a traumatic event .
There is a lack of definitive research on ASD and its prevalence. Studies show that between 6% and 33% of survivors have the disease. Survivors of violent traumatic events such as mass shootings are more likely to develop ASD than survivors of accidents or disasters such as hurricanes.
Physical consequences of trauma
in one TED talk about the physical effects of repeated traumatic experiences in childhood, Nadine Burke Harris, MD, MPH, FAAPSurgeon General of California and co-founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, described the body’s alarm response to the sight of a bear.
“Your heart starts pounding, your pupils dilate, your airways open and you’re ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear – and that’s wonderful when you’re in a forest and there’s a bear.” , Burke Harris said.
In non-urgent situations, an active fight-or-flight response can do more harm than good. It can make children feel anxious, angry, irritable, or withdrawn, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA).
“Children are particularly sensitive to this repeated stress activation because their brains and bodies are just developing,” said Burke Harris.
Some other health consequences of trauma include learning difficulties, diabetes and heart disease, according to SAMSA. In addition, trauma is a risk factor for nearly all behavioral, health, and substance use disorders.
Burke Harris focuses her research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic events that can affect a child’s long-term health. However, experiences related to gun violence are not currently recorded in ACE screening Some researchers suggested they should be.
What should child trauma care look like?
Healing from trauma can require people to talk about what they’ve been through, and sometimes reliving it. People with PTSD can also rely on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help them process their trauma.
Seeking help early could help some survivors with their recovery, Jaycox said, but that’s not always possible due to expensive and limited treatment options.
Jaycox is noticing this problem firsthand in her work for early intervention with traumatized school children. When she and her team identify a student who needs individual therapy, they often cannot find a quick fix and must place the student in a group setting.
“It’s really difficult to find people with the right services,” Jaycox said.
And a small town may not have a variety of mental health facilities. “Nobody has enough – not even the big cities,” she said.
Living in a tight-knit community like Uvalde can also pose a challenge to people’s recovery, as much of the community is affected by the same trauma and there are few avenues to escape. However, community support can also help people process and process experiences, and neighbors may be able to lean on each other to heal, Jaycox said.
“In a scenario like this, a small town where so many people are affected, everyone is shattered by the trauma and people aren’t going to be able to plan much right away,” Jaycox said. “But when things settle down … there are many opportunities to rebuild community, both within the school and in the wider community.”
What that means for you
Most children can recover from traumatic events, and some may even find new coping skills. But it’s important to give them support, reassurance, and a sense of security while they recover from distressing experiences.