Stories about kids who are injured or killed by firearms seem to be on the upswing these days—and they are extremely tough to hear.
Even if a child or teen survives a shooting, the emotional and psychological damage for the victim—and the family—can last long after any physical wounds have healed.
Children who are exposed to violence involving highly lethal weapons like handguns suffer the most extreme trauma compared to children experiencing any other types of violence, according to a new study to be released in the July 2015 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Study authors concluded that children’s exposure to violence involving highly lethal weapons can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and aggression.
Youth exposed to gangs are twice as likely to report being victims of violence that involves a weapon. But it’s a mistake to believe gun accidents don’t happen to people who live in “nice” neighborhoods or firearms don’t affect families who don’t have guns or those who keep their guns properly locked up.
“We see accidental gun injuries very frequently in kids,” says Graziano, a member of the AAP’s Arizona chapter (AzAAP). “In fact, we often see gun injuries take place in a house where the child doesn’t live.”
Graziano recalls the parents who picked up the phone one evening while their son was away at a sleepover to hear those heart-stopping words every parent dreads: “There’s been an accident.” When they went to the friend’s house, police told them, ‘Your son has been shot. He’s on his way to Phoenix Children’s and we’re going to take you there.”
The boy survived but suffered a devastating vascular injury. “They were just like any other family,” says Graziano. “But after three years, this family is still on edge. They’re doing better, but you can still see the effects.”
Graziano adds that it’s important for children who are exposed to trauma to undergo psychological evaluation and therapy for post traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
In her practice, Graziano performs surgery on many children for various reasons. But that sleepover accident in particular struck a chord, says Graziano, who is a mom herself.
If your child goes to someone else’s house and you don’t know if there are guns on the premises, you should find the words to ask, says Graziano. “Say, ‘Sometimes there are accidents. Is there any chance that could happen in your home?’ When my kids go to other houses, I say, ‘I am a pediatric trauma surgeon and I see all kinds of things. Let me just ask you if your house is safe.’”
Firearm fatalities are among the top 10 leading causes of injury-related death for children ages 1 and up, meaning more work to improve firearm safety practices is needed, according to the AAP.
“A lot of people keep a loaded gun close by—under the bed, on the nightstand—to have quick access,” says Graziano. “But that means kids have access, too.”