Vicarious Trauma in Teens

Just as it happens after every school shooting or widely publicized traumatic event, people all over the country (and in many other countries) gasped collectively in February immediately following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida. Parents of teens and teenagers themselves were particularly impacted, picturing themselves or their children in the situation described by several of the students who heard and saw the shooting.


While most people went back to their normal tasks a day or two following the event, some people did not and could not. The media continued to interview the survivors. Social media buzzed with videos taken by some of the teenagers during the shooting itself. There have been publicized boycotts and attacks; some prominent figures even suggested that the shooting could have been made up completely or arranged by the government. This coverage has been disturbing and it’s caused vicarious traumatization in some individuals, particularly teenagers.


What is Vicarious Traumatization?

Vicarious traumatization is when continuous media coverage leads to as much stress or, in some cases, even more stress than being present for the actual event. Rather than living through it once, the people affected by this condition continue to see it portrayed on media over and over again. A study done after the Boston Marathon bombing showed that media exposure keeps the event alive in a person’s mind and can create trauma-related symptoms.


Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma in Teens

Parents should be aware of the symptoms of vicarious trauma:

  • An obsession with consuming media related to the event, talking about it constantly.
  • Intrusive thoughts, not being able to get the event out of their mind.
  • Uncharacteristic anxiety, anger, or irritability. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
  • Feeling unsafe in school, at home, or in other places and situations.
  • Isolation, not wanting to leave the house.
  • A change in eating or sleeping habits, either eating more or less than usual or dealing with insomnia or oversleeping (or, in some cases, both).
  • Physical symptoms like headaches or digestive problems that don’t have a clear cause and that came on suddenly after the event took place.

How Can Parents Help?

Some ways that parents can help teens who are dealing with vicarious trauma include:

  • Enforcing limits on media and social media consumption.
  • Talking to their teens about not subjecting themselves to watching the coverage and the related events constantly.
  • Encouraging good self-care: eating well, sleeping enough, getting enough exercise each day.
  • Encouraging teens to get out and do fun things with friends.
  • Seeking professional help if symptoms continue or progress.


A school shooting is a terrible event, but it’s important to let teens know that steps are taken to keep kids safe in schools. Also, the likelihood of a shooting occurring at your child’s particular school is exceedingly low. Going over these facts can help somewhat, but vicarious trauma is not always about facts, but about feelings.


If you are concerned about your teenager and how he or she is coping after the recent school shooting or any other traumatic event, even if it took place far from home, check with their primary care doctor to find out whether a referral to a mental health counselor is needed.