Jocelyn Carter discusses gun violence, youth and stress

Jocelyn Carter
Psychologist Jocelyn Carter studies how trauma and stress affect youth. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
Pediatric psychologist Jocelyn Carter feels a personal connection to teens affected by gun violence, from Parkland, Florida, to the neighborhoods of Chicago. Twenty years ago, Carter was a senior in high school when a student shot and killed a beloved middle school teacher in her small Pennsylvania community.

Now an associate professor of clinical psychology, Carter researches the impact of stress and trauma on child and adolescent development and directs the Healthy Families Lab at DePaul. Below, Carter discusses how stress affects young survivors of gun violence in different ways, and she offers advice for adults who are talking with teenagers and children about gun violence.

It's been 20 years since you experienced the aftermath of gun violence as a teenager in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. What are your observations about what's happening now with the Never Again movement?

I have been thinking about the fact there are so many people now in this club - it's not a fun club to be a part of. We are seeing what happens as teenagers who have experienced gun violence grow up and make sense of it. And what their approaches might be to different political decisions or where their own kids go to school.

This is not, unfortunately, a new problem. I think it's especially important to think about black children being more likely to die from gun violence than the kids who you see in the media in the context of these school shootings. I've been really encouraged to see that with the student protests, the students are wearing black to talk about how gun violence differentially affects kids who are ethnic minority or live in certain neighborhoods. My hope is that we can keep making the connection between these two types of issues.

What is your current research on stress and trauma in children, and how does the taxonomy you're developing help categorize those stressors?

One of the things that's kept the stress field from moving forward is we don't have really good ways of measuring stress. That means, from study to study, pretty much everyone uses their own measure. That is why one of my colleagues, Kathryn Grant, has committed to solving this problem of stress measurement. I've been pleased to partner with her in this work.

We also know that some amount of stress is probably good, but we don't know what those cut points are. Some researchers only focus on one or two types of stressors, like parental divorce. Others study poverty or trauma. But we know that kids who are exposed to one of those kinds of stressors are also likely to be exposed to lots of other ones, and we're learning more about how they sort of pile up over the course of a lifetime. So our main work now on this, we call it a stressor taxonomy, is trying to be really specific and detailed about how the stressors are occurring and how adolescents perceive them. One of the things that's super interesting is not everyone experiences the same event the same way.

How does stress, related to gun violence or other causes, affect children from different backgrounds in different ways?

The kids who are getting hardest hit in their exposure to stressors are the ones who don't have other protective factors to help them cope and buffer the impact of their stressors on their emotional and social development and physical health.

In our taxonomy, we consider systemic stressors such as poverty, violence, lack of neighborhood safety or instability in your education. So in Chicago especially we do a lot of work on the South Side where four high schools are slated to be closed, and that stressor forms the backdrop of what's going to happen on any given day. If one thing happens, you can bounce back pretty easily if you have stability in your environment. It's the most vulnerable kids and families who bear the burden of all these changes that come up.

How can adults support teenagers who are joining the movement to end gun violence?

Later adolescents are right on the cusp of adulthood, and their leadership sets a strong example. But children and younger teenagers, ages 13 through 15, also need to know and trust that the adults around them are strong and supportive and safe. So I wouldn't want adults to just step back and say "the kids have this," because they are still kids.

Not all teenagers are going to want to talk about things with every adult. Even if the adolescent or child doesn't want to talk to you about it, it will be important to make sure that there is someone else they could talk to who could serve as a supportive adult.