Leaders seek to better understand, address emotional toll of violence on children

Mar 11, 2015

Violence affects all of us. But for children, violence can be particularly difficult to cope with and understand.

Compounding the issue, there’s not a specific type or source of violence to address.

“It’s violence in the home; violence in the streets. It’s exposure to violence, the length of exposure, the amount of exposure, the pervasiveness of exposure,” Dr. Duru Sakhrani, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis, told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday.

While crime is generally down in the U.S., there has been an increase of violence in children — or at least an increase of awareness, Sakhrani said.  

Conversely, the number of homicides in St. Louis in 2014 hit an eight-year high. There were more student deaths in the St. Louis Public School system than in previous years, said Valerie Carter-Thomas, principal of Northwest Academy of Law High School. That affects all students.

“Students who are exposed to violence act different in class,” she said. “Kids who are exposed to violence are more likely to be more aggressive.”

Sakhrani and Carter-Thomas will discuss the emotional toll of gun violence Thursday at a Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice program.

Based on her experiences as a teacher and administrator, Carter-Thomas said that victims of bullies often are more of a threat than the bully. “The victim of bullying is more likely to be the one to go out to get a weapon to harm somebody else, but still not see himself as an aggressor,” she said. “They see themselves as defending themselves.”

But it’s not all about violence witnessed at home, at school or in the neighborhood, Sakhrani said. Technology has increased awareness and access to information near and far, exposing kids and adults to violence locally and in other countries.

This was true of protests and violence following the August shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Sakhrani said. Children often were exposed to images on TV, even if they didn’t live near Ferguson.

“It’s one thing to think that you can be a victim of violence at any moment. There’s something different to believe that you would have no recourse if something like that was to happen to you,” Carter-Thomas said. Since August, many students have been more sensitive and less trusting of authority figures, she said. “Not feeling safe anywhere really made our boys feel vulnerable and it manifested in very different kinds of ways.”

Violence is particularly difficult for young children to understand, Sakhrani said. Children’s brains develop back to front, she said. “As they are neurologically developing, so are they emotionally developing.” If siblings witness or are victims of the same event, they will process it differently based on their neurological and emotional development. Sometimes they don’t know how to process it at all, she said.

But there’s hope, she said.

“I believe that kids should be helped, will be helped, need to be helped. It is only when we start acknowledging and validating what we see in children that we are able to develop the services that they so well need.”

Services should include schools, the medical community and community agencies, Sakhrani said. But those services also come with a price tag.

“I wish I could magically wave a wand and put together some funding and put together this conversation, but we already know that will take some time,” she said.

Related event

“Stolen Childhoods: The Emotional Toll of Gun Violence”

  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12, 2015
  • Where: Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road, St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.