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How Parents Can Help Kids Cope With School Shootings

Many children have seen video of the school shooting in Nashville.

Key points

  • Just because there are many mass shootings doesn't mean your child isn't affected.
  • The effects of trauma after a school shooting can be wide-ranging.
  • Viewing violent images on social media is directly connected to your child's mood and may evoke a traumatic response.

Your children may be watching video of a school shooting.

The killings at a Nashville school have sent shockwaves throughout the nation, leaving many parents questioning how to emotionally support their children during a time of crisis. Mental health professionals, educators, clergy, and other concerned adults are desperate for ways to help ease children’s distress. And with increased access to online videos and social media content, it is becoming more common for kids to witness real-time video footage of school violence. Parents can play a key role in helping their children process this type of trauma — so it’s important that you understand the emotional impact these scenes can provoke, and how to help foster healthy communication within the family dynamic about such violence before more psychological damage is done, both today and down the road.

Understanding the Effects of Trauma After School Shootings

In the wake of a school shooting, children can be left feeling scared and uncertain about their safety. Understanding the effects of trauma after a school shooting is important for both parents and students, as it can facilitate healing. Studies have found that exposure to adversity in early childhood can have a long-term impact on physical, psychological, and mental health. When talking to children about school shootings, parents should emphasize concepts like support, resilience, trust, communication, and empathy. It's also important to acknowledge that everyone experiences trauma differently, so it's not up to you to teach your child how they ought to feel during this time. Instead, allow them the space they need to process their emotions—and know that things will eventually get better if you come together with compassion and understanding.

How to Recognize Signs of Trauma in Children

Parents of children who have experienced or witnessed a school shooting will want to be especially alert to any signs of trauma. Common signs that may indicate that a child is struggling with the aftermath of such a traumatic experience include changes in appetite or sleep patterns, increased startle reactions, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of activities or people that were once enjoyable. It is also important for parents to be aware of their own emotions to identify what their children are feeling as well as to provide them with an outlet for talking about and expressing those emotions. Showing support and empathy as well as engaging in fact-based conversations can help parents create an environment in which it is safe for children to express themselves and channel any fear, grief, or anger they may have after a school shooting.

Proactive Strategies to Help Kids Cope with Triggers After a School Shooting

School shootings have unfortunately become a common occurrence, and with that comes a difficult set of conversations for many parents. It’s important to think proactively about ways to join the larger community effort of addressing mass trauma by helping your family cope. Work together with your children on strategies that will help them feel safe and empowered while they process their emotions. Teaching them coping techniques such as breathing deeply, taking a timeout, exercising, or engaging in creative activities like art or music can be helpful tools to draw upon when they experience triggers related to school shootings. Model empathy and self-care by practicing what you preach. Empower your kids to know when extra support is needed and to take care of themselves emotionally. The goal is to help them gain personal strength so they can face the difficult reality in ways that promote healing rather than cause further harm.

In the aftermath of a shooting, it's important that parents help children process and discuss their emotions. Providing a safe and accepting space to have conversations is essential. Expressing empathy for how they may be feeling can also be helpful in building confidence and creating a safe space in which dialogue can thrive. Helping them identify their feelings through stories or metaphors can also aid in these conversations as it allows children an expressive outlet for their feelings without diving too deep into what happened. Lastly, ensure that a consistent routine is kept so that normalcy remains a factor within the family; this keeps things predictable when tragedy strikes and allows everyone to feel grounded during such dramatic events.

We want to protect our children from pain, but as recent school shootings demonstrate, tragedy can be unavoidable. In times of grief, it is important that parents provide children with support and teach them coping strategies that will allow them to process the loss they experience. The goal is not to minimize the situation or pretend that everything is fine, but rather to help children sit in their discomfort while also providing them with paths forward. This could include teaching them relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation or having a safe space so they can express their fears and concerns. Not only will this help them come out on the other side of the tragedy better equipped for future losses and suffering, but it will also encourage them to grow into more resilient adults.

Nancy Kislin
Source: Nancy Kislin

Supporting Your Children During the Healing Process

In the aftermath of a school shooting, parents may feel overwhelmed by their children's strong emotions — as well as their own. It is essential that we listen to our children and allow them to talk about their thoughts and feelings openly. Throughout a difficult time, it is important to reassure children that they will be safe and loved no matter what. We should create an environment in which emotional safety is a priority and offer strategies such as talking calmly or writing in a journal as an outlet for emotional expression. It may be helpful to establish rituals like participating in social action projects together or talking with teachers and school counselors who can provide insight into your child’s struggles and offer support. Lastly, showing respect for how long the healing process takes is critical; even if we cannot change the trauma caused by school shootings, we can treasure the healthy environment we can create with children as they take on their journey of recovery.

Celebrating life is a powerful way to help children cope in the aftermath of a school shooting. Learning how to prioritize self-care and talk about their emotions with adults can be extremely beneficial for kids. Parents should keep in mind that the path to recovery may take time, and that normalcy and routine can help children find balance. It's also important for parents to recognize when it's time to get professional help from a mental health expert or trauma specialist. Above all, kids need unconditional love and understanding during difficult times, and if parents provide it, healing and growth should follow. Remember that you are not alone, and there are resources available to help guide you support your child through the effects of a school shooting.

More from Nancy J. Kislin, LCSW, MFT
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