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Community Support Is Crucial After School Shootings

Immediate response is imperative to reduce trauma response.

Key points

  • There are steps parents can take to help children cope with the trauma experienced from a shooting.
  • Quick intervention can help kids through what may be the most traumatic event they will ever experience.
  • Victims of vicarious trauma may also need to seek professional help.
Istock by Getty Images Credit: Susan Vineyard
Source: Istock by Getty Images Credit: Susan Vineyard

When you sent your child off to school today, did you expect hours later to be standing outside the school watching teachers and students running out from a shooting?

This is how one mom of an Oxford High School student described what she saw as she waited in fear, wondering if her son was alive after an active shooter killed and injured many at the school.

Her son was safe physically, but the emotional wounds from the incident may leave long-lasting scars. What can this mother do to help her son cope with the trauma? And what about her? What about the teachers? What about neighbors who live in that community? Everyone has been impacted by this traumatic event that you expect to hear about "somewhere else, not here" in our community.

The emotional recovery from this traumatic event is not time-sensitive. Expect it to take weeks, months, and possibly years. In some instances, people may not recover from the emotional trauma.

Individuals should seek mental health counseling as soon as possible. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possible long-term outcome, and quick intervention can help kids through probably the most traumatic event they ever will experience.

The students and staff may not feel safe returning to the building, and this is very normal.

In some cases, the immediate signs of trauma may not surface right away. A child could be living in denial or shock; everyone reacts differently. Kids will be scared, they will be depressed, and they will struggle with the barrage of emotions overwhelming them. They don’t understand how or why this could happen. Expect to see shock, tears, numbness, fear, anger, grief, and disbelief. Your child may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, eating, or remembering simple tasks. They can only think about the event and what they saw and heard.

Instead of focusing on how or why this happened, focus on love and support. Your child is in desperate need of it. Kids live in a world where they expect to feel safe and protected; when this is suddenly taken away from them, they don’t know what to do.

As parents, we wonder if our kids ever will feel normal again, and yes, they will, but it may take time and therapy.

Additional Advice for Parents

  • Talk about what happened. Help them acknowledge their feelings; don’t try to bury them. They will resurface.
  • Offer reassurance. Tell them they are safe.
  • Spend more time with your child and give them extra attention. They need you now more than ever.
  • Don’t expect them to handle the situation like an adult. Remember, they are kids, and they just witnessed an overwhelmingly traumatic event that most adults won’t be able to handle.
  • Ask for help.
  • Be a source of comfort and support.
  • Help your child tune out for a while. Social media will explode. “Your child doesn’t need to be immersed in it. Taking a break will help to begin restoring some normalcy in their life,” he finds.
  • Make sure your kids are taking care of themselves. Make sure they engage in healthy behaviors—eating right and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.
  • Slowly begin re-establishing their normal routine, at a pace that is comfortable for your kids.
  • Find resources in the community that can help.
  • Acknowledge that the world is not completely safe and sometimes we don’t have control over events. Talk honestly with your kids.
  • Do not let fear overcome them or you. The horror of a mass shooting is devastating, and your child may feel like this could be a common occurrence. A licensed mental health professional can help if your children or you cannot get over this fear.
  • Expect to see survivor guilt. Your child may question why he survived, and his friend did not. A licensed mental health therapist can help through this process.

Allow your kids to express their pain, talk about it, and share it with others. And begin taking positive steps to rebuild a healthy, safe, and secure life for your child. They just witnessed it destroyed; it will take some time before they begin feeling safe again.

Remember grief is a long process. Allow your children to grieve in their own way and in their own timeframe. You cannot force the process to move faster. And expect good days and bad days.

Vicarious Trauma

What about vicarious trauma? Some individuals may not know anyone in the school, but may live in a nearby neighborhood or have a child in a different high school or a friend who is a teacher. This hits close to home for them, too, and victims of vicarious trauma also may need to seek professional help.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.