Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth

By Garbarino, James; Bradshaw, Catherine P. et al. | The Future of Children, Summer-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth


Garbarino, James, Bradshaw, Catherine P., Vorrasi, Joseph A., The Future of Children


SUMMARY

Countless children and youth are exposed to gun violence each year--at home, at school, in their communities, or through the media. Gun violence can leave lasting emotional scars on these children. This article reviews research regarding the psychological effects of gun violence on children and youth, and offers suggestions for how parents, school administrators, and mental health workers can mitigate these negative effects.

* Children exposed to gun violence may experience negative short- and long-term psychological effects, including anger, withdrawal, posttraumatic stress, and desensitization to violence. All of these outcomes can feed into a continuing cycle of violence.

* Certain children may be at higher risk for negative outcomes if they are exposed to gun violence. Groups at risk 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.

* Parents, school administrators, and mental health workers all can play key roles in protecting children from gun violence and helping them overcome the effects of gun-related trauma.

The authors recommend a number of strategies that adults can adopt to help children cope with gun violence, such as increasing parental monitoring, targeting services to youth at risk of violent activity, and developing therapeutic interventions to help traumatized young people.

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Guns are deeply embedded in American society. Indeed, many people around the world perceive the gun as one of America's primary cultural icons--from Al Capone's machine gun to GI Joe's rifle, or more recently, the shotguns and assault rifles of young gang members and adolescent school shooters. An estimated 43% of American households contain some type of gun. (l) Despite the prevalence of guns in the United States, an ongoing and intense cultural struggle continues regarding their proper place in society, particularly in the lives of children and youth. Most states have laws limiting minors' access to guns. Yet surveys reveal that many youth, perhaps most, believe they could obtain a gun if they wanted to, and research suggests that as many as one in five inner-city teenagers reports carrying a gun at some point in a typical month. (2) (See the article by Blumstein in this journal issue.)

Gun violence is an important aspect of the larger problem of aggression among children and youth, mainly because it dramatically increases the seriousness of any specific aggressive act. Unlike other weapons, a momentary aggressive impulse can become lethal with a gun. For example, with fists, blunt objects, and even knives, the process of killing someone typically takes longer than it does with a gun and provides abundant sensory feedback (such as bleeding, screaming, and imploring) that can inhibit aggressive impulses. (3,4)

Assessing the psychological effects of gun violence on children and youth is complex and difficult for several reasons. First, a young person's "choice" to use a gun is not randomly distributed among the population of aggressors. Research reveals that using a gun indicates a higher level of violent intent than does using fists to fight. (2) Second, the consequences are often very different depending on the role the young person plays in an incident of gun violence--perpetrator, victim, or bystander. Third, relatively little research has focused specifically on the effects of youth exposure to gun violence or on interventions to help youth cope with their exposure.

At the same time, the available research shows that youth can suffer severe and lasting emotional distress from exposure to gun violence, and may become more likely to perpetrate violence themselves. Parents, schools, and communities are adopting numerous strategies to protect young people from exposure to gun violence and to mitigate any harmful effects. …

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