Debra Linesch is professor and chair of the LMU Department of Marital and Family Therapy. The author of four books and numerous articles and a former elementary school teacher, she has worked for years helping children deal with the effects of witnessing violence.
Does the impact on children who are witnesses of gun violence depend on their age?
All experiences of children have to be understood along a developmental spectrum. A younger child sees things differently, but I wouldn’t suggest the emotional impact is different. Children need, more than anything else, to feel safe and that there are adults around who are making their environment safe. The experience of absolute violence, from weaponry or guns, compromises that sense of safety. Older children may be more able to organize the experience with a more sophisticated mechanism of processing. But the difference is only in how the reaction is expressed, not in how it is experienced.
What are long-term effects when children witness gun violence, but no one steps in to help them?
Kids need to have a sense of a safe place to grow up and that adults are going to take care of them. I worked with a family in which a child of 5 was sitting in her mother’s lap when her father shot her mother. The mother bled to death. When you’re 5, your family is the boundary of your world. Much of her world was completely destroyed. So the possibility of her becoming an adult who trusts and has a sense of security — those are challenges. That’s what is taken away by violence.
What is your first priority when you are working with children in the immediate aftermath of an incident?
I want to give them a chance to tell their story. The reaction of “Let’s not talk about it” is probably the worst thing you can do. Many adults want to take care of a situation by dismissing its impact, but that’s not a way to take care of a situation. The child’s reaction can get repressed or suppressed and resurface in unfortunate ways, and lead to a chronic sense of insecurity. Everyone wants to return to a sense of safety as quickly as possible, and sometimes that’s not the most helpful psychological process.
What can adults who are not professional therapists do in the aftermath of an incident of gun-related violence?
We need to not let our desire to make sure everyone is taken care of, including ourselves, cause us to dismiss or minimize opportunities to express feelings about the experience. Let the children express the terror, fears and sadness that they experienced. As adults, it’s hard for us to do that because it triggers our own questions about our capacity to make our children feel safe.
How is art therapy helpful in these situations?
Children can sometimes connect much more deeply to the experience by using nonverbal activities. Art therapy is a tool that helps them to verbalize, but verbalization isn’t necessarily the end-goal. The goal is the expression and the acknowledgement of the expression.
How do you maintain a sense of hope while working in an environment of such painful trauma?
I feel hopeful that this country is able to move to meaningful conversations about gun control. I also feel hopeful because, when I work with an individual or family, I see that people have an innate ability to survive. To witness that in my work keeps me hopeful.