The Elephant in the Room

In our city and country, it feels that we are faced every day with another mass shooting, so much so that we seem to have become numb to the information. It is impossible to keep track of what shooting occurred, where, and how many were killed or injured. The proverbial “thoughts and prayers” have become meaningless utterances that provide no comfort for grieving families. For some children in foster care, witnessing and/or living in a home with domestic violence brought them into care, with guns being inanimate objects of destruction at the center of a familial vortex.

Children of color die by guns at a rate that is six times higher than their white counterparts. And males are four times more likely to die by a gun than females. More disturbing is the sheer number of children who die by firearms every year. It is now the leading cause of death of children under the age of 19. Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 50 percent increase in firearm deaths among youth. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that five in ten deaths of youth are a direct result of assaults with a firearm, and three out of ten deaths among youth are by suicide. The reasons for this phenomenon are many and varied and are beyond the scope of this article.

Having a gun in the home is considered a risk factor for suicide. Research shows that nearly half of suicide attempts occur within 10 minutes of the initial suicidal thought. Combine those statistics with the impulsivity of adolescence, and you have a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder the state licensing requirements for foster parents surrounding gun/ammunition storage are so stringent. For those who own a gun for home and family protection, they argue that an unloaded gun is worthless if there is an intruder.

Contrary to that argument, a recent study conducted by David Studdert, a professor of Law and Health Policy at Stanford University, refutes the assumption that a gun in the home promotes safety. In fact, the numbers found that “people living in homes with guns face substantially higher risks of being fatally assaulted.” Interestingly, another study points out the discrepancy in the perceived effectiveness of safe gun storage in the home. Parent respondents in the study reported that their guns were securely stored in the home. Yet the youth in those same homes contradicted their parents and stated that they indeed had easy access to their parent’s firearms.

It is no surprise that being a victim or witness to gun violence has a negative impact on mental health. Active shooter drills that have become commonplace in schools, while meant to provide protection for the vulnerable, increase the level of fear and anxiety among the drills’ participants. With 26 percent of youth reporting being exposed to gun violence, our country has a mental health crisis that far exceeds our resources.

Though school shootings are the most publicized of mass shootings, they, in fact, make up a small portion of firearm deaths among youth.

Persistent fear and anxiety in children are known to negatively impact a child’s ability to learn. Therefore, their academic performance suffers, as well as the general sense of well-being both in, as well as outside of the school community. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a frequent diagnosis for survivors of gun violence.

It is foolish to think that our society, with its divisive culture, will change anytime soon regarding the prevalence of guns in our country.

So, what can a parent do to protect their children from this pervasive violence?

1. It is essential that you be a safe person that can listen without judgment to your child when they need to talk about overwhelming stress, anxiety, or vulnerability that they may be experiencing because of the constant barrage of stories about shootings both locally and throughout the United States.

2. It is imperative to talk to your children about gun violence. Youth need to be educated and aware of signs of escalating rage, such as increasingly louder voices. Hearing threats of someone seeking revenge is a tip-off to moving away from the source of such communication. Parents and youth need to agree upon reasonable times to be home. One wise father stated, “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.” Gun violence can occur anywhere, but it makes sense for your youth to stay away from high-crime areas. It is also essential for them to always remain aware of their surroundings. People who have their heads down, earbuds in, and engrossed in their phones while out in public put themselves at a disadvantage in staying cognizant of the environment.

3. Practice body language that exudes confidence, speak with authority, and utilize eye contact to reduce the chance of becoming a victim. Perpetrators are drawn to those individuals who appear naïve, timid, or distracted.

4. When out in public, make it a habit to note all the exits from the room or building. In the event of a shooting, a person’s first choice should be to run away from the shooter. If escape is not possible, hiding is the next best option. Experts suggest fighting as a last resort—and it is not the time to fight fair; you are fighting for your life.

5. Limit/avoid opportunities for youth to watch violent movies or play violent games. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that youth who engage in watching violent movies and playing violent video games show an increase in dangerous behavior around real firearms. The most obvious preventive tactic is not to have a gun in the home!

6. The easiest prevention method is to work with your child in learning regulatory activities that they can employ when they begin to get upset. Being armed with multiple and appropriate coping strategies can assist your children in not becoming overwhelmed with feelings that could lead to extreme and dangerous behaviors. As parents, know that you are always being watched. How do you react when frustrations arise? What kind of things do your children hear you verbalize? Figuratively threatening bodily harm to someone who cuts you off in traffic may be interpreted by a youngster as an acceptable response to temporary frustration.

Lastly, if your child witnesses gun violence, it is important to engage with a therapist to process the experience. Left untreated, fear and anxiety can become debilitating.