If your teen is a victim of a school shooting, attends a school where one happened, or learns about one from the news or social media, this traumatic event could seriously affect their mental health. They may experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. As a parent, it’s critical that you know how to best support them.
Keep reading to learn how a school shooting could affect your teen, how you can help them heal, and when to contact a mental health professional.
Facts About School Shootings
According to the Washington Post, more than 311,000 students at 331 schools have experienced gun violence on campus since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. The newspaper has found:
- At least 185 people, including children and educators, have been killed in assaults, and 369 have been injured.
- While school shootings are rare, there were more in 2021 — 42 — than in any year since at least 1999.
- So far in 2022, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day.
High-profile shootings on campuses involving teens include:
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: In 2018, an expelled student killed 14 students and three teachers in Florida.
- Columbine: In 1999, two teen boys killed 12 students and one teacher in Colorado.
How School Shootings Affect Teen Mental Health
According to Brian Daniels, clinical director of New Vision Wilderness, a wilderness therapy program in Wisconsin, teenagers directly involved in a school shooting because they were injured or witnessed the event as well as those indirectly involved who heard about it secondhand could experience:
- Increased nightmares.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Worry about their safety at school.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Suicidal thoughts.*
- Substance abuse.
Teens who were directly involved could also experience survivor’s guilt.
Daniels said it’s important to note that a school shooting’s impact on teen mental health — and how long that impact lasts — can vary from person to person, and those with a preexisting mental illness could be more deeply affected. For example, he explained, a youth who wasn’t directly involved but who has high anxiety could fixate on what happened more than a peer who experienced the event firsthand but was more grounded and higher functioning from a mental health standpoint.
In a 2022 op-ed piece published in multiple media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, Columbine survivor Krista Hanley shared that life felt divided into “before” and “after” the shooting, and she worked hard to ignore the pain and grief she felt after the event. She also touched on her experience with trauma.
“No matter how much I ignored it, the anxiety would emerge and threaten to swallow my life,” Hanley wrote. “It was like a part of me was still frozen and afraid on that cafeteria floor.”
The impact on daily life
If your teen is dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting, Daniels said it can throw a wrench into the predictability of their day-to-day life.
“Not having that stability or regularity to ‘What I would be expecting in my day to day’ can increase a kid’s anxiety and the possibility for other issues, whether that’s refusing to go to school or being on edge,” he said.
Daniels said the lack of predictability can also increase the likelihood of your teen acting out or having difficulty managing their emotions.
How You Can Support Your Teen
The American Psychological Association has several tips for helping children manage distress after a shooting at a school or anywhere else:
- Talk with your child about their worries and concerns.
- Keep your home a safe place.
- Watch for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety.
- Take news breaks.
- Monitor adult conversations.
- Check in often.
- Take care of yourself.
Daniels agreed with those tips and also stressed helping your teen make sense of what happened by being clear, open, and honest about it so they don’t make up a story to fill in the gaps.
“That story oftentimes is a lot scarier than the reality,” he said.
Daniels also recommended keeping your home life as predictable as possible. For example, follow a schedule for when you eat dinner, do chores, and run errands — and communicate changes to that routine ahead of time.
Providing proper support if your teen refuses to go to school is also important, according to Daniels. He recommended you sit down and connect with your son or daughter about how they’re feeling rather than jump right to getting them back in class.
“Check in with them and see what’s going on, and really hear them out about that,” he said.
Once you’ve taken that step, Daniels recommended letting the school know what your son or daughter is worried about. Ask how staff members are supporting other students who are struggling and what they can do to help your teen.
When it comes to how long your teen may need to process what happened and feel better, Daniels said not to have a set timeline in mind. It could take your son or daughter some time to work through things.
“I don’t want a parent to think that the process is going to have to follow this exact, precise script,” he said, adding that there are different stages of grief and processing, and it can be a fluid experience where your teen moves back and forth between stages.
When To Seek Professional Help
Daniels said while teenagers dealing with a traumatic school shooting could have a hard time for up to a year, if your son or daughter is struggling after two months, get additional support. He recommended watching for behavior that’s unusual for your child, such as:
- School refusal. “A big one is avoiding school,” Daniels said. “You see that a lot with kids.”
- Notable behavioral changes that affect day-to-day living, such as excessive or decreased sleep.
- Substance use issues, such as drinking or using drugs.
- Anger or high-level emotions that don’t fit the situation, such as blowing up because you ran out of a favorite cereal.
- Irritability. While it’s a normal part of teenage development, it can become excessive.
In addition, Daniels said if your teen is saying everything is fine and nothing is the matter, that’s not necessarily the truth.
“We see that as a defensive trauma response sometimes,” he said.
One important exception to waiting for two months to get help is if your teen was already dealing with a mental illness before the shooting. In that case, Daniels recommended letting a therapist know right away about what happened.
The Most Important Way To Support Your Teen
To best help your teen after a school shooting, Daniels said to focus on connection. Make yourself emotionally available and present. For example:
- Turn off the TV.
- Go out for ice cream.
- Sit on the couch together.
Sometimes, Daniels said, just being silent together is valuable. Less can be more.
“So, when you’re present, be actively present,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you’re sitting there doing a bunch of things or answering your work email or on the phone. Be locked into your teen.”
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If you’re having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 — the Crisis Text Line — from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!