Like many U.S. cities, Philadelphia is struggling with a rising tide of gun violence. During this calendar year alone, there were 957 nonfatal and 242 fatal shootings in the city as of July 4, 2022. One hundred and five of these cases involved children under age 18.
These shootings take their toll on the mental health of our children. Research suggests that concern about school violence or shootings may be a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders.
In an article written for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Faculty Member Aditi Vasan, M.D., MSHP writes, “As a pediatrician, I have often seen children come into the hospital or clinic with mental health-related symptoms, including depressed mood, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, in the days and weeks following a shooting near their home or school.”
Children as young as two years old can be aware of gun violence, says Julie Campbell, LCSW, Trauma Services Director at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia. But because children are often exposed to gun violence on television and in video games, it can be hard for them to understand what it means when a person is shot.
It’s heartbreaking to watch a child struggle with the stress and anxiety that gun violence can provoke. But it’s not always easy to know how to respond, or what to say. Campbell encourages parents to take their cues from their kids, listening closely to what they know and what they fear, and responding at a level they can understand. “If we ask an open-ended question and then pause to listen deeply, the communication is much more meaningful and more likely to continue,” Campbell says.
Parents shouldn’t shy away from taking the lead to start the conversation, Campbell adds. And both parents and educators can help reassure children by talking about the safety measures that are in place to protect them.
Additional tips to help parents manage their children’s anxiety include:
- Stay connected. After a first conversation, check in with your child every few days to see if they’re still feeling anxious.
- Encourage kids to reach out to the adults around them if they’re worried or upset.
- Turn the television off, especially if the news is replaying violent incidents.
- Spend family time together. Have a game night or movie night so children feel that home is a safe and good place to be.
- Support your child’s wellness, including helping them get enough exercise and sleep. Lack of sleep can make children more irritable and less able to manage their emotions.
- Teach your child relaxation strategies such as deep breathing. A “4-7-8 breathing” exercise made popular by Dr. Andrew Weil has been found effective in managing anxiety and helping people fall asleep. Sesame Street offers several excellent video demonstrations of this breathing technique for children, including Learn to Belly Breathe with Rosita and Common and Colbie Caillat Sing Belly Breathing with Elmo.
- Teach your child positive self-talk. “When we’re thinking fearful thoughts, we can hit the pause button in our brain and change them to positive thoughts, such as ‘I’m home, I’m safe, I know how to ask for help,’” Campbell says.
- Maintain your own self-care. Getting support for yourself will trickle down to your children and make you more emotionally available for them.
Pediatricians can also be allies in helping support kids, Campbell notes. They are trained to talk to families about exposure to trauma and to detect signs of anxiety. Children might not have the words to express their feelings. But sleep problems, changes in eating habits, or complaints of headaches and stomach aches provide clues to problems that providers can address, she says. “Medical care is not just about your body, it’s also about your emotional health.”
The Importance of Violence Prevention
It’s a tragedy that gun violence has become so commonplace that we need strategies for helping our children manage the resulting anxiety. While we must provide them with this support, we also mustn’t accept this level of violence as a fact of life.
Greg Deavens, president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross, issued this statement on May 18, 2022: “Philadelphia – like so many other cities across the country – is experiencing an epidemic of gun violence. These senseless crimes destroy families and communities and take a toll on our collective mental well-being.” He added, “Independence strongly condemns all acts of violence, and we pledge to always be a force for positive change.”
- Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services
- Center for Effective Parenting
If You Need Help
If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
For more information about self-care strategies for mental health and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.