How to Help Teens Cope After a School Shooting

No parent or teacher wants to think that they’ll need to help the teenagers in their care cope with the aftermath of a school shooting. But the reality is that in today’s climate, a school shooting is a real possibility in many communities. Surviving a school shooting is a very traumatic experience, and teens who have been through that experience will need help recovering from the trauma and readjusting to regular daily life. Adults in their lives need to know what to do to help a teenage school shooting survivor cope. Take a look at some tips that can help.

Don’t Censor School Shooting Information, Contextualize it

Your instinct might tell you to prevent your teen from watching or reading news about the school shooting that they’ve been through. It’s bad enough to survive a school shooting, so why keep exposing your teen to information about it? However, this instinct, while understandable, is not necessarily correct.

In the aftermath of a school shooting, your teen won’t only be worried about themselves. They’ll also be concerned about their friends, teachers, and school officials that they see every day. It can take hours or even days sometimes before there is complete and accurate information about who may have been killed or injured in a mass shooting, and your teen will want that information. They’ll also be curious about the shooter and want to know if they’ve been apprehended – having that information may be important for helping them feel safe again.

If your teen owns a smartphone, computer, or tablet, you probably can’t prevent them from accessing information about the shooting anyway. So instead of trying to block their access to information, monitor the news with them. Help them contextualize it. If your teen is worried about classmates or school officials who have been hospitalized, help them get in contact with someone who can update them on the person’s condition. If they’re worried about the shooter, help them find out who to contact at the police department to get updates on the case. Discuss how they’re feeling about the news that they’re reading or watching. This can help your teen process and contextualize the experience and their own concerns.

Be Available, But Make Space

If it’s possible for you to take time off work to be with your children in the aftermath of a shooting, do it. Your teen may be comforted by knowing that you’re close at hand and available for them. If you can’t take time off, at least take the time to call or text and check in frequently.

At the same time, recognize that your company may not be exactly what your teen needs at every moment. Make space for them to connect with their peers during this time as well. This may be a good time to temporarily suspend limits on texting and instant messaging during family time. Give your teen some latitude if they ask to go out and meet up with their friends or invite their friends over. Peers are especially important during the teen years, and when a peer group has experienced a shared trauma, they will naturally want to process it together.

Admit Your Own Feelings

It’s common for teens to hold in their feelings in front of their parents out of a fear of causing their parents distress. However, it’s healthy for teens who have experienced a school shooting to be able to admit when they’re feeling anxious, afraid, depressed, or anything else.

To encourage your teen to be honest about how they’re feeling, it can help for you to be honest about how you’re feeling. Show your teen that you are already distressed, but you’re handling it and able to talk about it with them. This can help them understand that it’s safe for them to share their own feelings with you.

Encourage Your Teen to Take Action

Often, after a tragedy, people feel the urge to do something, even if they don’t know exactly what. Experiencing something as upsetting as a school shooting can leave teens feeling helpless, and taking some kind of action can help them feel stronger.

After the February 14, 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, many students responded by channeling their feelings into activism. They contacted lawmakers, gave speeches, organized marches, reached out to other school shooting and gun violence survivors, and more. Their example shows teens that they’re not helpless and that there are concrete actions they can take after a school shooting. Not everyone has to or wants to be an activist, but teens who feel compelled to do something concrete might want to look for ways to commemorate shooting victims who died or help injured survivors. Help your teen brainstorm tangible things that they can do that will help them feel stronger and more in control.

Seek Therapy

Teens who have been through a school shooting may experience any number of mental health effects like grief and loss, survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression. Even if they seem to be handling it OK, some of these issues might be just below the surface.

If your teen had been in a car accident, you would probably insist that they see a doctor to check for hidden injuries. After a school shooting, even if your teen is physically unharmed, you should insist that they talk to a therapist or counselor to check on their mental health. Even if your teen doesn’t believe that they need it, therapy is a good idea after such a traumatic event. Talking to a professional who may be able to identify lingering issues and suggest coping strategies that will work for your teen can only help. Make sure that your teen knows that prioritizing their mental health is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.

Parents may also want to talk to a therapist themselves. After all – fearing for your child’s safety in a shooting event is also traumatic. A therapist may be able to help you balance coping with your own fears and feelings and helping your teen at the same time.

Further Reading