Protecting Children from the Harmful Effects of Gun Violence

by James Garbarino, Catherine P. Bradshaw, Joseph A. Vorrasiart

Parents, school administrators, and mental health workers all have roles to play in protecting children and youth from exposure to gun violence and in helping them overcome the effects of gun-related trauma. Parents can closely monitor their children's behavior, environment, and media use. Schools can identify and target services toward students who may be at risk for perpetrating gun violence, but they must be careful not to create a climate of fear. Finally, mental health workers can develop and implement intervention programs that help youth cope with gun violence.

Parents' Role in Protecting Children

Parental responses to gun violence are especially important because the way parents cope with traumatic events largely determines their children's response. In fact, one of the best predictors of children's reactions to a potentially traumatic experience is their parents' reaction or level of functioning. During the height of the German bombing of England in World War II, for example, children in London measured the danger that threatened them chiefly by gauging their parents' reactions. When parents break down or panic in response to gun violence, children suffer, because emotionally disabled or immobilized parents seldom offer their children what they need to cope successfully with traumatic experiences These parents tend to engage in denial and to misinterpret the child's signals and needs, making them emotionally unavailable to their children.

Parents face some daunting challenges in protecting their children from gun violence, not least of which are social expectations that they bear responsibility for their children's actions. They can address these challenges by closely monitoring their children's behavior, environment, and exposure to violent media.

Monitoring the Child

Acknowledging that no family is immune to the threat of gun violence is an important starting point for parents. Until the mid-1990s, many parents believed that youth gun violence plagued only inner-city neighborhoods, schools, and communities. But the wave of school shootings that occurred in the late 1990s made many parents realize that no community is free from the threat of youth violence. Although school shootings are rare and account for only a small portion of all youth gun violence (see the article by Fingerhut and Christoffel in this journal issue), the grisly televised images of wounded children, students barricaded in classrooms or closets, and innocent children being killed by their classmates brought youth gun violence to the forefront of the American consciousness.

Parents can acknowledge the danger of gun violence by being alert to signs that their own children might be prone to violent behavior. Communities commonly respond to youth gun violence by blaming other adults—often school officials or the perpetrators' parents, who "should have known" that children were going to commit violent acts. Although no empirical studies have specifically addressed this issue, anecdotal evidence indicates that youth may provide some clues that they are plotting armed attacks.

For example, one of the most controversial issues arising from the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, was whether the parents of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold should be held accountable for their children's actions. Members of the Littleton community and the public questioned how the boys' families missed so many red flags, such as the boys' admiration for Adolf Hitler, obsession with violent video games, and stockpiling an arsenal of semiautomatic guns, grenades, and the materials to construct some 30 bombs. When the police searched Harris' bedroom, they found a shotgun, ammunition, a bomb, and a timeline of what was to happen on the day of the massacre—materials the parents could have discovered before that fateful morning.

However, parents may find it difficult to detect a child's impending transition from "troubled teen" to "killer" for many reasons. Teenagers hide many things from their parents, and they act differently around their parents than they do around their peers. Moreover, peers and adults in the school or community often do not share disturbing information about teens with their parents. Finally, it seems disloyal to most parents to "think the worst" of their children.

Monitoring the Environment

Parents who are concerned that their children may become victims or perpetrators of gun violence can alter their parenting behavior to compensate for dangers in the children's social environments. One parenting practice that has been researched extensively is parental monitoring, which involves tracking and attending to the child's activities and whereabouts. Research reveals that well-monitored children and youth are less likely to smoke, use drugs and alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior, become antisocial or delinquent, and socialize with deviant peers.

Though parental monitoring may protect children from many of life's temptations and dangers, can it protect them from gun violence? Interviews conducted with 10 mothers in the public housing projects of inner-city Chicago suggest that the answer is yes, at least in some settings. According to these mothers, closely monitoring children and adolescents is the only way to protect them from the widespread gang activity and gunfire that are characteristic of their community. Similarly, studies indicate that many parents in urban areas try to compensate for the unpredictability of their environment by setting greater restrictions on their children's behavior and using more physical discipline.

Monitoring the Media

Parental interest in regulating the amount of violent imagery children watch has grown in recent years. Complicating matters, the deregulation of children's television programming has increased parents' responsibility for monitoring their children's television viewing. The growing demand for monitoring technology such as the V-chip suggests that American parents are struggling with the task.

Similarly, there are efforts to impose—and, in some cases, enforce—age restrictions or recommendations on certain forms of violent media. Such efforts include restricting admission to R-rated movies, placing warning labels on music with explicit lyrics, and providing recommended audience ages for prime-time television shows. These initiatives are self-imposed and self-regulated by the entertainment industry, but many adults support stricter legal restrictions on children's access to certain forms of violent material.

In addition, many American parents are beginning to limit their children's access to violent video games in response to findings that they have played a role in the proliferation of youth violence, and that children with certain risk factors, especially signs of peer rejection and emotional instability, should have limited exposure to point-and-shoot video games. Some communities also are taking action to restrict children's access to video arcades. The city of Indianapolis, for example, has prohibited children under age 18 from playing violent video games in arcades without a parent present. Distributors of arcade video games have filed lawsuits that may overturn this action, but other cities have expressed interest in imposing similar restrictions. Legislation pending in Congress also would impose greater restrictions on access to violent video games and other types of violent or age-sensitive media.

Schools' Attempts to Prevent Gun Violence

Schools face the difficult task of preparing for the possibility of school violence without creating a climate of fear. Nonetheless, prevention may be the best alternative to inaction or hysteria.

An essential aspect of school violence prevention is performing an effective and in-depth assessment of threats of violence. To avoid "profiling" potential school shooters, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has developed a guide for teachers and school administrators to use after a student has made threats of violence. The FBI urges school administrators to watch for warning signs that can include a low tolerance for frustration, depression, lack of empathy, exaggerated sense of entitlement, excessive need for attention, inappropriate humor, rigid views, fascination with violent entertainment, access to guns or weapons, and high exposure to violent media.

To help reduce the risk of violent incidents in schools, the FBI suggests that school administrators provide guidance to parents on issues such as the importance of restricting exposure to violent media, and on the need to be aware of their children's peer group and activities, to seek active involvement in their children's life, and to avoid giving children an inordinate amount of privacy. Beyond educating the family, the FBI recommends that administrators evaluate their school's culture and its contribution to the potential threat of gun violence. Indicators that could be monitored include the prevalence of bullying or social cliques, the level of comfort that students feel in sharing concerns with teachers and administrators, and even the physical layout of the school. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan have studied "unowned places": undefined territories within schools that are associated with violence and crime. According to this research and similar studies, hallways, dining areas, bathrooms, and parking lots are often centers for school violence because they are "unowned" and frequently unoccupied by school personnel.

However, some school efforts to prevent gun violence on campus may foster more fear rather than a sense of security. Metal detectors, bars on windows, and surveillance cameras may make students feel unsafe or that they are not trusted. Similarly, emergency drills may send the message to expect a shooting, creating a climate of suspicion and anxiety among students and faculty. Furthermore, some experts note that if schools rely on "zero tolerance policies" and simply expel students who make threats, such practices may actually exacerbate the danger by inflaming students who are already at risk for violent activity. Rather, they suggest, administrators should make a careful assessment of potential risks (including access to weapons in the home or community) and direct these students toward mental health services if necessary.

Therapeutic Interventions with Youth Exposed to Gun Violence

Treating victims of gun violence involves healing both physical and emotional wounds and mitigating the factors that can perpetuate the cycle of violence. One promising approach is therapeutic group intervention.

Trauma-focused group interventions have successfully treated violence-exposed and victimized children and adolescents, but these programs are rare.7 When clinicians from the UCLA Trauma Psychiatry Program began a school-based therapy program in the early 1990s for teenagers who had sustained or witnessed violent injury, they discovered that virtually none of the victims had received any form of psychological assessment or therapeutic intervention beyond treatment of their physical injuries. The intervention that UCLA adopted addresses the youth's traumatic experiences and posttraumatic stress reaction, including reminders of the trauma (such as scars), bereavement issues, and developmental disruptions (such as abandoned academic goals).

The greatest challenge in providing services for traumatized youth is identifying who has been exposed to violence.7Most young people do not seek support services and, quite often, family members and school personnel are unaware of the youth's exposure. Consequently, a more uniform identification and referral procedure is needed, particularly in communities with high rates of gun violence. Schools appear to be the most promising avenue for successful identification of and therapeutic intervention for exposed and victimized youth.

Mental health services for these youth need to be both systematic and sustained, in contrast to short-term crisis intervention, because the severity of children's reactions to trauma can wax and wane over time. Just as effects of PTSD and exposure to violence vary with the youth's age, so do his or her service needs. Therefore, a developmentally appropriate approach is essential for effective intervention.