Helping Children Feel Safe in the aftermath of a school shooting

Schools have traditionally been a place of safety and learning for children, but with the recent uptick in gun violence in schools, students and families are left with an ever increasing sense of anxiety about sending their young ones off to school for 7-8 hours a day, 5 days a week. 

Despite the fact that statistically the odds of a child being directly impacted by gun violence in school is 1 in 10.6 million, it’s still normal to experience a level of fear in the aftermath of school or community shootings, especially those in the media, even if you were not directly involved.

The initial response to news of these traumatic events often creates symptoms of anxiety in both parents and children including trouble sleeping, nightmares, change in appetite, difficulty concentrating, fixation on the event, and fear of being alone or separated from family. While these are normal in the immediate aftermath, it’s important to quickly put some measures in place to minimize long-term impact on mental health. Consider these strategies for helping your family deal with these types of traumatic events.

  1. Talk about the events in a natural and age-appropriate way. Some parents hesitate to talk about difficult or scary topics wanting to avoid undue fear in their children, but it’s important to understand that children are already thinking about these things as they hear them on TV, social media, and from other children. Talking about them can help reduce misconceptions and misinformation, and provide an opportunity to offer support and reassurance. 
  1. Limit media exposure. While talking as a family is important, avoid a constant flow of information about the traumatic event through tv, social media, and other news outlets. Remember that the senses are very powerful, so be careful to safeguard the photos and images children see, sounds they hear, and other ways they are exposed to information about the event. The more information that comes from you, or another trusted source, the better the child can process.
  1. Create a safe, predictable home environment. When a child feels unsafe in the world, it is critical for them to feel safe at home. During this time it will be especially important to hold tight to “normal” family rhythms and routines, especially around mealtimes, bedtimes, and caregiver interactions, as these provide the brain with a natural feeling of safety and security. Remind the child of the overt measures you have in place to protect them against any dangers. It might be good to physically take the child through the house and point out safety measures like door locks, smoke alarms, or security systems ensuring them they can count on you to keep them safe. 
  1. Keep an eye on symptoms of fear and anxiety. It is common for people to experience symptoms of distress in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, but these responses typically subside within 4-6 weeks. If symptoms persist or become increasingly more intense, it is crucial to seek help from a mental health professional who could help process the event to ensure the symptoms do not create lasting mental health issues. Watch for these symptoms that could indicate your child is not coping with the incident.

How to Get Help

If your family is experiencing distress associated with school shootings or other traumatic events, please reach out to a mental health provider to help you process the experience and find strategies for successfully managing the impact of the news of trauma.

Volunteer Behavioral Health (VBH) provides a wide range of services to the insured (TennCare and Medicare) and uninsured through the TN Behavioral Health Safety Net and several grants. Some of the services VBH provides are extensive care management, outpatient therapy, medication management, intensive outpatient programs, and many other grant-based services in the community.  

It’s also important to note that May is Mental Health Awareness Month so reducing barriers to treatment and recovery is critical. Often, the biggest challenge is overcoming the stigma of reaching out for help. To that end, Volunteer has worked to make obtaining mental health treatment a simpler process through a No Wrong Door philosophy and Same Day Access to services. This means that a community member can call the First-Time Appointment line and receive services such as an intake, Care Management, and Medication Management that same day where previously the process could have taken several days or weeks. The First-Time Appointment line is 1-877-567-6051. Additionally, Crisis Services are available 24-hours a day to respond to adults experiencing a mental health crisis at 1-800-704-2651. The 24/7 Statewide Crisis Line for adults and children is 855-274-7471 (855-Crisis-1).

More Resources:
American Psychological Association resources for coping with mass shootings, understanding gun violence

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network school shooting resources

CDC Helping Children Cope During and After a Disaster 

Follow Volunteer Behavioral Health at vbhcs.org and online at www.facebook.com/volunteerbehavioralhealth.