Parents are a missing part of the gun violence puzzle, advocates say

Sharon Smith is currently seeing some of these signs in her 9-year-old grandson, who lost his father to gun violence five years ago.

“It’s just like a rollercoaster with us and his behavior,” she said. “And sometimes I can tell when it’s things that’s related to him thinking about his dad… something major that’s going on. And then he shuts down on me.”

Recently her grandson told her he was scared after hearing about a nearby shooting on the radio.

“I didn’t really think about some of those ‘control’ things that were affecting them,” she said. “I didn’t know.”

She says from now on, she’s going to be careful about what plays in the car when they drive and avoid letting her children stay in the car when she’s doing school pickup.

Both Smith and Brown are part of Moms Bonded by Grief, a support organization for women who’ve lost children to violence.

Executive director Terrez McCleary says she hopes workshops like the ones that took place this week will encourage parents to step up and take a more active role in violence prevention by asking their children about bullying and harassment at school.

“They just need someone to listen to them and to talk with them,” she said. “They have fear in them because they have lost family members to gun violence… they fear they may be the next victim. They feel as though they have to protect themselves before they allow somebody to hurt them.”

She said parents can also keep a closer eye on potentially violent activity.

“Go through your home, flip mattresses, go through closets, open shoeboxes,” she said. “Find out what’s going on in your home.”

There are lots of nonprofit gun violence prevention programs for young people, but Williams said are designed to serve caregivers and fewer children together.

“You can do it à la carte,” she said. “But then there’s times when we come together as a family, as a nucleus.”

Of the more than 50 nonprofit organizations currently receiving financial support from the city to prevent gun violence, only a handful explicitly state that their programs will serve parents or families.

Williams said at EMIR, if she’s working with a child and another counselor is working with that child’s parent, they’ll often consult each other on what’s happening and give compatible exercises as needed.

Multiple gun violence prevention nonprofits across Philadelphia are looking for ways to address the problem with the entire family, instead of just with the young person at risk of involvement. The Day of Serenity in West Philadelphia earlier this month pointed families affected by violence to mental health resources, and the NOMO Foundation is launching a weekly families trauma healing event for beginning this Saturday.

Williams says parents and caregivers should be prepared to step up their involvement this summer to protect children from potential harm. She suggests leaning on the acronym HELP to remember to “hold and honor” children, “empower and encourage” them, “love them, lead them and laugh with them” and “pray” with them. This can mean asking questions in non-judgmental ways that open up a space to talk, providing words of affirmation, or just planning low-stress activities where families can laugh together.

She says with her clients at EMIR, she often tells them to do something fun and different with their kids. If they say they can’t afford it, she helps them look around online for free activities.

“And if you are savvy enough, you figure out when you get some free water ice and the free pretzels and the free this and the free that,” she said. “You can really make a whole schedule. I’ve done that for my clients.”

The trauma workshops were part of a series of parent-centered virtual events hosted by the School District of Philadelphia related to stress, financial literacy and other topics.

The City of Philadelphia has announced a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to prevent violence by providing mental health help, skill-building and job-finding assistance to families in public housing who are most at-risk.

Philadelphia Resources:

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If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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