Since the Newtown tragedy on December 14, 2013 the press and media have lead the country in a never ending discussion of the causes of the travesty. Most conversations seek someone or something to blame- easy access to firearms, inadequate services for people with mental disorders. None offer a sufficient explanation. Neither gun owners or people with mental illnesses are necessarily violent. In fact, most are not.
An alternative explanation can be found in the epidemic of violence that grips our country and claims many of us as its victims. 26% of our children under four years old have already been traumatized, usually by domestic violence. Over 40% of school-aged children and youth report frequent experiences of victimization in the home, community and/or school.
Exposure to violence does not in and of itself cause mental illness. Nor does it necessarily perpetuate aggressive, destructive behavior. But exposure to violence can and does change the structure and chemistry of children’s brains. These changes leave children less able to exert emotional control and less able to form secure attachments with others. They are more vulnerable to the feelings of detachment and isolation that characterize both mental illness and antisocial behavior.
Exposure to violence is traumatizing because it exceeds children’s capacity to cope. Alone, they are powerless to move beyond the cognitive distortions and anxiety caused by violence. They require the support of caring adults who can reestablish a sense of safety and well-being. Without these reparative experiences, children are destined to grapple with the effects of trauma throughout their lifespan.
It’s time to start taking a closer look at how much trauma and violence our children and adolescents are being asked to endure. We screen for other developmental risk factors. Why not screen for the incidence of adverse childhood experiences. Screening coupled with trauma-sensitive schools and childcare programs are important first steps in preventing the regrettable consequences of early childhood trauma left unattended or ignored.