How police violence impacts childhood development

In the months after a Grand Rapids police officer killed Patrick Lyoya, community members have come together to grieve, remember, march, protest, and demand justice. Much of it has unfolded in front of young children.

“Children are aware of everything that is happening. They may not be able to articulate it very well, but children will see things and immediately recognize it as an injustice,” explained Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, founder and CEO of Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative.

“They feel the tension. They see people marching. They know now that anytime people are marching something is wrong. They sense it but don’t know how to deal with it.”

What young children see, feel, and sense can cause trauma and affect how their brains develop. Dr. Ezeh says young brains are resilient, and some children can witness something traumatic and snap out of it quickly. However, the consequences of continuous stress can have a lasting and severe impact. 

“If a child is in an environment where there is already stress or abuse, the impact of a traumatic event is magnified. The brain doesn’t know how to process it, and that is why children sometimes lash out,” Dr. Ezeh said. 

“Our bodies from a young age understand the feelings of fear or not feeling safe,” added Laura Vogelsang a licensed social worker at Arbor Circle who specializes in infant mental health and developmental trauma. “One of the very first things in our brain to develop is how to feel safe and how to feel unsafe. That keeps us alive.” 

Vogelsang says seeing that parents or primary caregivers are in distress can intensify a young child’s concerns about being safe, secure, and connected. How those feelings manifest themselves varies. Some children lash out and act more aggressive or disruptive. Others shut down and withdraw from people and activities they typically enjoy. Regressive behaviors – like baby talk and bed wetting – can also be a response to stress and trauma.

Both Dr. Ezeh and Vogelsang say adults should focus first on making young children feel safe. That can be as concrete as showing them the home is secure, the doors are locked, and there is nothing hiding under the bed. Maintaining a routine also creates a feeling of safety, but in times of trauma and stress, it is important to balance that with giving young children the flexibility to do what makes them comfortable, like reading a book or playing with a favorite toy.  

Beyond that, how parents, teachers, and other caring adults provide support and comfort varies based on the needs of an individual child. If a child shows signs of wanting to talk about something, adults can follow that lead.  Dr. Ezeh suggests asking simple questions to find out what the child knows. 

“Tell me a little bit more. Why do you ask that? Can you describe how you are feeling? Let children know that you want to hear their questions and talk about what is on their mind,” Dr. Ezeh explained. “Listen well and help them take breaks in the conversation. You can say, ‘Let’s stop for a minute and just breathe.’” 

Vogelsang adds parents and caregivers need to ensure they are taking care of their own needs – not just those of a child – and shouldn’t jump into a conversation before they are ready.

“We can’t fix this for our child, as much as we want to. It’s OK not to have all the answers.” 

Finding answers after a deadly police shooting can be particularly difficult. National data show fatalities from officer-involved shootings have increased in recent years across the country and Black people are at greater risk than those of other races and ethnicities. Vogelsang says at an early age, children can start to internalize that police shootings disproportionately impact Black people.

“Racism, discrimination, violence, we can feel all of that from an early age, and it can be traumatic. The long-term impact is not the same for every child, but it definitely can have an effect on brain development,” Vogelsang shared.

Dr. Ezeh says incidents like the shooting of Lyoya can make young children question whether they are safe around law enforcement. 

“It distorts that image of what children believe to be true, that the people who protect them can and should be trusted. When you begin to doubt that it can send you into post-traumatic stress anytime you see a police officer.” 

While there has been significant research into how trauma young children experience themselves can harm their brain development, Dr. Ezeh believes we need more research on the impact of community trauma that children feel and observe. She also says we need a better understanding of children’s perceptions of law enforcement. Most of all, she says the community must always be aware of and responsive to the needs of our youngest citizens.