What happens to young children — like Jacob Blake's 3 sons — who witness violence? Experts explain.

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·9 mins read
Protesters take to the streets in Kenosha, Wis., where police shot Jacob Blake — in front of his three children — leaving him partially paralyzed. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Protesters take to the streets in Kenosha, Wis., where police shot Jacob Blake — in front of his three children — leaving him partially paralyzed. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

When news broke on Aug. 23 that yet another unarmed Black man had been gunned down by police, there were plenty of highly upsetting details reported: Jacob Blake, 29, was shot in the back seven times at close range in Kenosha, Wis., leaving him partially paralyzed; he had first allegedly been punched and tased by law enforcement officials; and the incident was not recorded by police body cameras, which they do not wear there.

But perhaps the most disturbing bit of information was this: Blake’s three sons, ages 3, 5 and 8, were sitting in the car that their father was leaning into as police officers shot him, bearing close-up witness to the violence against their father.

“His kids are his world. But not only that, his family is his world," Jacob’s sister, Zietha Blake, said at a news conference about her brother’s attack. “He's upset because we're hurt, we're upset. He doesn’t even care about himself. He’s more so worried about us.”

Members of the Evanston, Ill., church where Blake’s grandfather was a pastor, Ebenezer AME, added, in a statement, that it was “disturbing that this action was taken without regard for his children that witnessed this egregious and callous action.”

According to experts in trauma and child psychology, along with studies representing decades of research, Blake’s young sons — like the nephew (then 8) of Atatiana Jefferson, the daughter (then 4) of Philando Castile’s girlfriend, the sister (then 14) of Tamir Rice, and the many other children who have witnessed similar police violence against family members — will likely never be the same.

“Anytime that I hear about these incidents, it breaks my heart,” Erlanger A. Turner, assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, tells Yahoo Life. “My first reaction is ‘These kids are going to be traumatized.’”

In some children, research shows, witnessing violence, which is a trauma, can increase the risk of depression, substance abuse and aggressive behavior — and even lead to adverse physical effects, such as heart disease, metabolic disease, immune disorders, stroke, increased aging and changes to brain development, which can follow a person over a lifetime.

The Washington Mystics wear T-shirts with seven "bullet marks" on the back and the name of Jacob Blake spelled out on the front to protest the shooting of Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
The Washington Mystics wear T-shirts with seven "bullet marks" on the back and the name of Jacob Blake spelled out on the front to protest the shooting of Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

“Exposure to adversity in childhood is a powerful predictor of health outcomes later in life — not only mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety but also physical health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer,” wrote Katie McLaughlin, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the latest study to look at such adverse effects of childhood trauma, published earlier this month in the journal Psychological Bulletin. “Our study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection.”

Another recent study looked at how “systemic and daily experiences of racial discrimination may spill over into the family and affect close relationships, thereby contributing to worse health and well-being.”

Says Turner, whose recent book is Mental Health Among African Americans, “Experiencing racism and witnessing violence can increase risk for poor mental health. Decades of psychological research has found that when children witness racism and repeated exposure to these types of events, it can lead to lower self-esteem, anxiety or symptoms of depression.”

So, it stands to reason that when Black children witness acts of violence rooted in racism, particularly when it’s directed at the people they love, the effects of the trauma are even further compounded.

“Obviously, it can be more severe growing up in a marginalized community,” Aquilla Frederick, a psychotherapist with the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “If you’re in a marginalized community, chances are you’ve been witnessing violence for a long time. And even infants can have a reaction to this kind of violence.”

It’s then even further complicated when the violence comes at the hands of law enforcement. “In most neighborhoods, the police are supposed to protect them,” Frederick says of the children. “But in Black communities, this is not the case. Parents sometimes become overprotective of their children…because they know if their children go out, especially young black boys, they could get killed, they could get shot like Blake did.” And that overprotectiveness and fear, she says, can prevent kids from engaging in normal development processes.

“It’s pervasive in African-American communities. It’s been going on since Jim Crow. The same kind of lynching is still happening,” she says.

When she heard about Blake’s children in the car, she says, just as when she’d heard about the many other children who have witnessed similar attacks, she thought “about the continuation of this — the continuous murdering of, especially, Black men of color, and how most of the time, especially in the past year or so, these murders have been witnessed by children. So, it’s not a new phenomenon, if you think about the impact of children witnessing violence against a family member, or even a stranger.” Nevertheless, she adds, “It’s devastating.”

Frederick, who founded and facilitates the Talk Race Project, as well as a COVID grief-sharing space for people of color, and who has worked in her private practice with children as young as 2, says that, at first, children who have witnessed violence can react in a variety of ways, depending on their age, the severity of the violence and whether or not it has happened repeatedly (such as with domestic violence).

She says “they can become afraid for their safety … and can display symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, where they become very fearful, they become numb, they can become agitated, they can have sleep disturbances, sometimes stop eating … [they can have] emotional regulation disorders, or go to school and can’t perform.”

Later in life, she adds, having witnessed this type of violence “can interrupt their ability to develop empathy … and what ends up happening if they don’t get help earlier is they can … get into gangs, perpetrate violence on other people. There’s been no process to help them to deal with these longstanding issues around witnessing violence, so there’s a lot of anger, a lot of aggression, and if it doesn’t get processed, it can lead to problems.”

Caregivers’ responses to the trauma and other factors are important in child outcomes

“How they cope with all this depends on how the parents or caregivers are able to handle their own loss and grieving,” Frederick says, “because if the parents are not able to deal with their own loss in an effective way, then they can’t be there for their children.”

And while the support person doesn’t have to be a parent but can be “someone they know they can go and talk to and feel protected,” how a child fares depends largely, she says, “on the family systems’ coping mechanisms and how they’re able to help their children.” Kids who have a support system already in place tend to get over the negative impact sooner than ones who don’t, she says, but she adds that it “also depends on a child’s resilience or natural abilities, on their intelligence, and how can they find ways to take care of themselves.”

How to help children who have witnessed violence

In addition to providing them with a safe space in which to talk about and process what happened, Turner says, “You should monitor children’s behaviors and emotions. If you notice extreme changes in mood or behavior, it is important to seek help from a trained child psychologist or mental health professional.”

But that, says Frederick, is “very complicated” for many in the African-American community, due to “their experiences of discrimination when it comes to the mental health profession.”

And it is why people in “African-American communities usually rely on each other for community support.”

Other factors, she adds, include parents not believing in the concept of therapy, not being able to find a therapist of color to work with, and not believing that a child could be affected by violence to someone else “because they didn’t see it, or they won’t remember.” But as Frederick knows from her private practice, “with children who are very young, if they witness violence in their home or on the streets, they may not be able to verbalize it, but the regulatory system reacts — they act out, they’re aggressive. And when you try to engage the child in conversation as much as you can, they remember things that happened that really frightened them.”

And so, she says, “we need more therapists of color who are trained to deal with these kinds of issues, or at least with families of color in general. And we need to be able to convince the parents to buy into this type of resource. It can be a challenge.”

As for those who have grown up trying to process such traumas and who are now struggling as adults, Turner says, “It is important that you take care of your psychological health and take news breaks. You should not feel guilty for not watching the videos or stepping away from social media or even the news.” Further, he says, “We also know that engaging in activism, such as peaceful protests, can also serve as a protective factor to reduce psychological stress — and it can be extremely helpful to process these emotions or trauma with a therapist.”

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