What do We do after Mass Violence

By: Dr. Chad Lemaire, Medical Director of Behavioral Health

After the recent mass shooting, we all have probably experienced a lot of strong emotions. An important point to remember after events like this is that any emotion is valid, there is NO right or wrong way to feel. Common reactions can include having a sense of shock, experiencing sadness, grief, outrage, anger, anxiety and fear, helplessness (especially concern that it can happen anywhere to anyone), numbness, and many other emotions. Adults and children alike can exhibit trouble sleeping, poor appetite (or overeating to soothe themselves), difficulty concentrating, or having trouble with organization and memory.

It can be helpful to rely on your social and/or professional networks for support. It is OK to talk about how we are feeling. It often helps to talk to others who share our feelings or can offer comfort.

However, it’s also equally important to approach this with balance. It is easy for us to become overwhelmed by all of the exposure to the shooting and the aftermath. We live in a time of 24 hour news, and while it is normal to want to get more information, being overexposed can actually increase our stress. Each person should try to be aware of how they are feeling and pull back from exposure to the stories if they think this will help them, even distracting themselves from thinking about the shooting and focusing on something that will likely lift your spirits. Many find that engaging in productive activities in their communities can be healing. We often see after tragedies people coming together, donating time and money – we saw, for example, after the shooting, people lining up to donate blood, vigils honoring the victims happening around the country, etc.

It is also important to practice self-care. This includes simple things like focusing on eating well, getting rest, engaging in some physical activity, and avoiding alcohol and drug use. Taking time to be with people who are important to you can help. The vigils that we’ve seen around the country are not only a way to support the victims and their loved ones, but they’re actually a social activity where community members show support to each other and start the healing process.

Children can show the same emotions that adults do after these events, but they can also act out behaviorally, having more defiance or irritability or anger. They may just withdraw and get more quiet than usual. They can also struggle with schoolwork for a while and have difficulty with concentration. They may have some separation anxiety, wanting to stay with their family or other secure adults. Their sleep and eating routines may change. These things should gradually get better over time.

Talking to kids: Many times, adults fear that talking to their children about a mass shooting or other tragic event will increase their child’s distress. However, most children and teens are likely getting information about the shooting from hearing others talk about it, from their peers, from the media, and other places. Experts recommend making yourself available to talk to your child about these events and letting them know you are there if and when they want to talk, but NOT forcing them to talk about it. Kids will usually talk when they are ready. Also, NOT talking about it with your child can make the event even more frightening or threatening in their mind, especially young children with vivid imaginations and concrete or magical thinking. Avoiding talking about it can give the message that it is too horrible to talk about.

Some people fear that they won’t know what to say to their child. That is normal and OK. You may not have all the answers, and it is ok to say “I don’t know” if your child asks you something that you don’t know how to answer.

It can help to START by asking your child what they know about the event. Listening carefully and taking time to correct any misinformation as well as address any underlying emotions can help. Use simple, clear, age appropriate language and don’t bombard the child with too much information at once. You can give uncomplicated explanations of the event without going into too much detail, especially unpleasant or traumatic details. You can give information about what support the victims and their families are receiving and what steps authorities are taking to ensure safety. There are often MANY safety concerns after events like this for children AND adults, and restoring a sense of safety can be challenging. Children and teens (and adults, for that matter) may ask if it is possible that an event like this could happen at their school or your workplace. What they probably want to know is if this type of event is LIKELY. It can be difficult to address this question, with all of the tragic events that we are exposed to, but noting that while it is POSSIBLE it is UNLIKELY is an honest but hopefully reassuring answer. It can also be helpful to show affection and keep a close eye on them until they’re feeling more safe and secure.

For young children (preschool and early elementary age), it may be necessary to reassure them that they didn’t cause any of the deaths or injuries and that the event was not a punishment for anything. 3-4yo children, and sometimes up to 5-6yo kids can experience magical thinking, where they imagine that their thoughts or actions caused something to happen. For example, they may think the shooting happened because they misbehaved the day before – it is important to correct the misperceptions.

For adolescents and teenagers, it can be helpful to talk to them about what their friends are saying about the event and make sure that they are receiving accurate information.

It is also appropriate to share your own feelings with your child or teenager at a level that is appropriate for them, such as expressing sadness or empathy for the victims and their families. You can share some level of worry, but balance that with ideas for coping with stress and being resilient.
It may also help to NOT have these discussions close to bedtime, as this can increase distress and interfere with sleep. Also, it is good to limit your child’s exposure to media reports of the shooting, and for very young children, not allowing them to see or hear any media reports at all. We often think if a child is playing or in the next room, they aren’t paying attention to what we are watching or listening to, but they are often well aware of this.

Lastly, It is important to normalize our reactions to tragedies, being aware that most people (who were not directly involved or know someone who was directly involved) will recover to a sense of normalcy without any intervention or professional help. However, if someone feels that their experience is impacting their functioning significantly, you can seek professional help with a mental health specialist.


Resources (much of the information above and more can be found on the websites below):

National Child Traumatic Stress Network http://www.nctsn.org has a page on terrorism with resources for deal with mass violence. It has tips for adults, tips for parents (including tips for children of various ages and developmental levels).

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress www.cstsonline.org has similar resources with tips.

The American Psychiatric Association https://www.psychiatry.org/   , American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry www.aacap.org , American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/  ,  American Academy of Pediatrics  and the American Red Cross http://www.redcross.org/  websites all have some valuable information as well.