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How Exposure to Violence Impacts the Mental Health of Children

By: Dr. Jeremy Fink, LCSW Psy.D.  |  December, 8th, 2017

On December 7th, William Atchison walked into Aztec High School armed with a handgun and opened fire killing two students. This is the latest incident of violence occurring in or around a school in what has become a modern trend of mass violence in America. The students at Aztec High, friends and family of those directly affected, and the first responders will likely experience emotional stress and psychological shock from the horrors of this event.  But what about the rest of us? What about our children?

Children are exposed to so many sources of media that acts of violence, even when they occur in another part of the country, can be experienced as intensely as if the child experienced the trauma in person, in extreme cases showing post traumatic stress symptoms. Part of the reason for this is the repetition of the exposure. For those who watched the September 11th attacks on television, you likely remember specific images that were played over and over again on the news, searing them permanently into your mind. Those images will likely still trigger a trauma response for most of us: anger, anxiety, or fear are examples. With constant exposure to media, children witness acts of violence daily, and when something happens like the shooting that occurred yesterday at Aztec High, media coverage is constant and repetitive. 

School shootings seemingly have become a regular occurrence, and exposure to this is likely causing our children to be more aggressive, anxious, and depressed, with less empathy. Children exposed to various forms of violence in the media can come to view the world as a dangerous, scary place where they are not safe and they can do little to protect themselves from harm.

So what can we do as parents? 

Is it possible to limit the exposure to media? This question is far from rhetorical, I honestly don't know if it's possible, but I think it's worth a try. It is also important to reassure your children that what they are seeing over the media, the senseless acts of violence, is not the norm. It is important that your child believe that there is good in this world, that they see people trying to help those who are suffering or in trouble, that they learn empathy from watching you the parent (if you are desensitized to violence then it is likely your children are also). If you can't eliminate violence and negative media in the home, then you must at least compete with it, offering your child something more positive and hopeful.