The level of violence among youths has risen to alarming proportions over the last few decades. The inner cities have become breeding grounds for youths committing felony crimes and graveyards for those being killed.
The conditions that contribute to delinquency among our youths are widely studied, documented, and reported. Our juvenile systems are now bulging and growing as rapidly as adult jails. Speaking with inner-city youths, they know that “Juvenile Hall” is jail for kids and they report having many friends and peers who have gone there or are still there.
As a psychotherapist trained in trauma resolution, I have worked with children ages three through eighteen, resolving trauma triggered by many types of occurrences. These include the death of parents through illness, sudden and traumatic death of parents, relatives and friends, rape and sexual molestation, and separation from their parents and family.
Great empathy is extended to the young child who cannot understand the absence of a mother due to untimely death. Most family members are not appropriately trained to handle trauma in their children. Youths, ages seven to twelve, may be left alone to grieve, or ignored and avoided by the adults in the family, school, and community. Children thirteen through eighteen normally isolate themselves in sadness, loneliness, and depression. Some youths act-out in defiance and aggression, secretly yearning for help and understanding to cope with their loss, pain, and sadness.
A large percent of the violence among our youths stems from unresolved trauma. Youths today are very familiar with death, they are witnesses to violent and traumatic incidences. Most of the deaths of their peers are from violence and the rest from suicide, illness, and accidents. Particularly in the inner cities, children are confronted with deaths at an early age, especially the traumatic death of family members, friends, and peers. These children are highly exposed to shootings and killings in their neighborhoods attributed to drugs and the drug-related culture. They are traumatized by incestuous relations by fathers, sexual molestation at the hands of family members, friends of the family, and frequently from the boyfriends of their drug-using mothers.
Our systems are ill-equipped to address the needs of children in trauma. The census of traumatized children in our communities will be greatly under-assessed, as many of the crimes go unreported. Many school systems are oblivious to the problem of trauma among the children. Principals and teachers report as defiant and bad behavior the ‘acting out’ children engage in as defense mechanisms to mask the pain, shame, and confusion of traumatic events. On many occasions, I have arrived at a school to counsel a child reported to be bad, fighting and defying authority, only to uncover a traumatized child camouflaging the impact of the loss of a parent, relative, friend, or peer.
When assessing changes in behavior patterns and academic performance in children, I observed that in most cases a traumatic event preceded the onset of the problems. Consequently, our jails, foster homes, schools, and communities are filled with children with unresolved trauma. Consider the young child who, after losing a parent or relative, is suddenly placed in foster care. As this child struggles to adjust and cope, he or she is labeled “bad” and is shuffled from one foster home to the next. Pain, frustration, and anger are piled on each time that child is removed. As the trauma is compounded and goes unresolved, the child is labeled and rejected as a bad child, gets lost in the system, or ends up in the juvenile system or dead.
The problem of the millions of traumatized youths in our communities must be addressed. While we linger in ignorance and confusion as a society, our young people are being criminalized and killed by the thousands. We have seen the blank stares and frightened responses of adults in trauma. Children in trauma act differently, they might laugh or act-out to cover their emotions. Some turn to anger, defiance, and maybe drugs; still, others engage in truancy in the home and school, drop out of school and run away from home. Always their defense mechanisms are focused upon as the problems while the underlying cause of the problem goes untreated.
The shootings, death, and trauma in our inner cities grow daily. If our traumatized youths are not given urgent attention, the headlines and newscasts will continue to report increased violence and deaths. Social and educational systems, especially in states with large urban communities, must allocate budgets to provide treatment for our traumatized youths. This group of children has gone unnoticed and unattended for far too long. The time is now to address the problem. Yesterday is a terrible memory and tomorrow a dreaded reality. Let us not forget that today’s youths are the adults of tomorrow, future parents and heads of families, leaders of our communities, governments, and our world.