Gun violence unfortunately is becoming a more regular part of our lives. July was a particularly deadly month, with 86 mass shootings as of Aug. 3, as defined by four or more people injured or killed in addition to the shooter, according to Gun Violence Archive data.
Those incidents included an outbreak of violence around the Fourth of July weekend in which more than a dozen states and Washington, D.C. were affected. Two of those incidents were in Maryland, and both involved children—a 14-year-old boy killed in a block party shooting on the eastern shore and about 15 children injured in a block party in south Baltimore.
School shootings also spiked significantly beginning in 2018, according to the K-12 school shooting database, with the highest number of recorded incidents yet in 2022 with 304 total.
That database is an open-source research project provided as a resource on the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s School Shooting Safety Compendium. It documents all gun incidents, including those in which a gun was only brandished, or a bullet hit school property.
The reasoning is based on the idea that students and staff are affected no matter what.
“Regardless of how the incident is defined, the initial impact to a reported shooting that occurs at a school is generally the same. There is widespread fear and panic at the school. The campus needs to be locked down. Police, fire and EMS respond…” among other protocols, according to an explanation of methodology.
In light of recent events and children heading back to school this month, we spoke with two specialists from Kennedy Krieger Institute to learn more about the psychological effects of gun violence on children and what parents can do to support their kids’ mental health.
Supporting mental health for both children and parents
Lindsay Cirincione is the director of outpatient operations in the pediatric psychology consultation service at Kennedy Krieger. A mother of two herself, she has been practicing psychology since 2014.
Cirincione says in her practice she frequently finds that children are concerned about gun violence. “We live and work in Baltimore City—that’s a hot spot for gun violence; it comes up very often in my practice.”
And children aren’t the only ones whose psychological health is negatively impacted by gun violence; parents deal with a lot of anxiety, too.
Jennifer Payne, a research scientist and clinician at Kennedy Krieger’s Center for Child and Family Stress, works with parents to help them manage their own trauma and anxieties.
“The parents I talk to, most of them are Black. Most of them are extremely stressed. Most of them are balancing 100 things at once in addition to teaching their kids about safety,” Payne says.
According to Payne, the parents she works with often struggle to give themselves permission to rest and to teach their kids that it’s OK to rest. One of Payne’s clients with a young daughter discovered that by working on her own anxiety through therapy and self-work, her daughter’s anxiety also improved, Payne says.
“Therapy helps people become better parents. It’s like in an airplane—you put your own mask on first before you help someone else.”
In addition to therapy, Payne says parents can support their own journey to wellness through journaling, reading and podcasts to gain more awareness about their mental health.
In supporting their children, Cirincione says context is important. A child’s own trauma has a lot to do with their proximity to the event—if they were wounded, if they saw someone get hurt or die and how the family is processing that event.
How does gun violence affect children psychologically?
Trauma, Cirincione explains, is relative.
“You and I could experience the same event and have vastly different outcomes. Sometimes, parents get worried because a child is not responding negatively,” Cirincione says. “But it’s important to remember that something really scary and upsetting to you may not affect your child the same way.”
Cirincione pointed to a wide and growing body of research as well as her own clinical experience to explain that children affected by gun violence can face increased rates of mental health concerns including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), difficulty relating to others socially, problems with academic success and an increased risk for violent behavior.
“When a child experiences an adverse event such as gun violence, the way they see the world and the way they see other people around them can change. They can go from feeling secure to uncertain, from seeing people as potentially trustworthy to potentially dangerous,” Cirincione says.
How should you talk to your child?
Cirincione offers parents the following tips: maintain routine, manage your anxiety, don’t dwell on the detail, choose a good time to talk to your child and remember that trauma is relative.
Maintaining a routine helps children by providing a sense of stability. If kids are worrying about what happened, a distraction can help children manage acute stress. According to Cirincione, this might involve taking a walk or coloring, depending on the child’s age.
When talking to your child about what happened, make sure it’s at a time when everyone is calm. Don’t start a difficult conversation when people are already anxious or upset. During this conversation, it’s important not to dwell on the details.
“As adults, we think more information will help us cope, but with kids, too much information can be distracting for them. Too much information can make it more traumatic,” says Cirincione.
Letting your child lead the conversation resolves the issue of giving too much information and opens the door for parents to correct any misinformation their child might have about an event.
While news about gun violence is a daily occurrence in the United States, news is geared toward adults and is not developmentally appropriate for children, according to Cirincione.
Children may misunderstand news about an event or misinterpret opinions as fact. Kids can also encounter incorrect information on social media. Cirincione says it’s crucial for parents to be aware of what their kids are reading and talking about on social media.
What’s the bottom line?
“A lot of families ask, how do I send my kid back to school? Back outside? Back to normal life?” Cirincione says. “I share a famous Fred Rogers quote to look for the helpers. That’s my guideline.”
Teach them who the helpers are, remind them that their teachers have the skills to keep them safe and police are trained to help in these situations. Have them identify one or two people who they know will be able to help. Doing this, Cirincione says, helps children reestablish a much-needed sense of stability.