We have long known that exposure to violence puts people at risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And we know that trauma from violence can affect every relationship. Now, in an article recently published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, investigators found that many of the social workers who counseled large numbers of people traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks developed symptoms of PTSD themselves.
So imagine what is happening to our children who, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist George Gerbner, witness 20 acts of violence per hour when watching television.
The Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association have found that children exposed to television violence are at risk for becoming aggressive, fearful or desensitized. Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering and see the world around them as a threatening place. Moreover, they may become less sensitive to their own suffering.
I recently asked a 17-year-old boy how he felt about the video games he was playing: “At first the violence was pretty upsetting and disgusting. Now I have gotten used to it, and it doesn’t bother me anymore.”
The media aren’t the only culprits. Our children are exposed to violence at school, on the streets, and even at home. Children who frequently witness their parents’ verbal battles, in which the language is aggressive and demeaning, can become anxious, withdrawn or depressed. This also can happen to children who are frequently criticized in a way that is global or humiliating. Because children can become so anxious and overstimulated, their anxiety will often mimic symptoms of ADHD. Many of these children are misdiagnosed and inappropriately medicated. Sadly, the medication will work sufficiently so that the symptoms are diminished and the real problem never gets looked at.
There is something you can do: Those social workers in the 9/11 study who reported that their home environment was safe and nurturing were much less likely to experience PTSD. So I propose that we do whatever we can to make our homes as violence-free as possible.
As a family, restrict TV and do more activities that everyone enjoys. When you do watch TV and see violence, talk about what it means – the effects on the victim, perpetrator, and their loved ones. This helps put that violence in context and limits desensitization.
Be aware of verbal aggression in your home. Conflict is inevitable, and can even be healthy. Children feel safer when they watch their parents resolve conflict in a mutually respectful way. But no one does well when the language gets hurtful or even violent. When there is conflict, be clear about what you feel, what you want, and what is troubling you. Remember, the only reason you are in conflict is that both of you are feeling distress. Try to simply understand the distress without shame or blame.
Keep the language in your house as free from criticism as possible. Some criticism is necessary, but it should be used in a way that will help someone.
Even generalizations about other people or groups will interfere with making it a safe home. Discrimination can add to children’s sense of isolation and raise their anxiety.
A family project devoted to helping others enhances compassion and raises the body’s natural antidepressants – increasing one’s sense of well-being.
From fairy tales to children’s stories to the deepest calling of one’s soul, home is supposed to be a safe place. And in today’s world, that may not come without intention.