By Karen Sheehan, MD
I recently attended my last elementary school winter assembly, made all the more sweet after what happened in Newtown.
For the past 20 years, I have been privileged to take care of children who lived in Chicago’s Cabrini Green public housing project. In 2011, the last of Cabrini Green was demolished. These families were forced to relocate, and are now scattered throughout the city. Some live in safer neighborhoods, but others live in neighborhoods that are less safe.
It is common for me to learn, during a well child-care visit that the child’s family home was broken in to, or they heard gunfire in the neighborhood, or a close family member has been shot. For many, their homes and their communities are not safe havens, and the neighborhood schools often aren’t either. That these war zones exist within our magnificent city is one of the greatest atrocities of our time.
When I heard about what happened at Newtown, I had an enhanced appreciation of how overwhelmingly powerless my patients and families must feel in the face of unremitting violence. It must be paralyzing, living in constant fear that one’s child may be shot playing outside or even while sleeping in one’s bed.
But I often marvel at the resiliency of many of my families. They have figured out what they can do to mitigate the effect of community violence on their children. These steps will not eliminate violence — but they are things all of us can do to help protect the emotional well-being of our children.
Model healthy behaviors for your kids. Even though it may seem that your child never listens to you, they are carefully watching how you navigate your way. If you are feeling overwhelmed, show them that is okay to seek help.
Chicago has had such a violent history. It is easy to think violence is inevitable, but it is not. Violence is a learned behavior. Other major cities such as New York and Los Angeles have had dramatic decreases in violent crime over the last decade. We can too. As part of its commitment to help Chicago become the healthiest city in the nation for children, Lurie Children’s has recently convened Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (also known as SCY), a collaborative effort which uses a public health approach to decrease violence.
Although your time for starring in your elementary school production may be long past, we all have a role to play in making our city safer for all children.