This week’s horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has flooded the major media with disturbing images of the violence that left 17 dead, leaving many parents and children struggling with anxiety and fear.
In the wake of the tragedy, mental health experts expect an increase in people seeking counseling, especially those with clinical depression or anxiety disorders. In addition, many specialists are urging parents to talk to their children to help them address, confront, and process their concerns.
“Repeated mass shootings at schools has become an ever-mounting source of stress and anxiety for school children and their parents,” notes Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Mind Health Report newsletter.
He tells Newsmax Health it’s important to share difficult feelings about such tragedies and let children know it’s OK to talk about them.
“Let them know that it’s normal to feel fear, worry, anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions and that sharing those concerns with you can be a relief,” he says. “If your child is afraid to go to school, remind them that teachers, principals and other school staff are trained to deal with these situations and keep them safe.”
Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author, agrees that opening a dialogue is the most important way to cope with such traumatic experiences.
“It’s very important to talk to your kids about the reports of [the Parkland] school shooting they may be seeing on the news, especially if they express concern or fear,” he says. “For older kids, parents should feel free to answer any questions they may have and listen to their feelings. For younger kids, try to keep it short and avoid emotional rabbit trails.”
Small and Amen tell Newsmax Health it’s also a good idea to come up with a family plan for dealing with unexpected violence — at school or anywhere else.
“It should not be a child’s burden to worry about and fear things they cannot control, but as adults, we should have a plan in case disaster strikes,” Amen says.
“Parents should be able to say to their children, ‘If something bad happens at school – do this and do that. If someone at school tells you they are having violent or suicidal thoughts, ALWAYS tell parents about it, even if the kids tell you not to.’
Such conversations can help ease fears and focus on the lessons such tragedies teach.
Other coping strategies recommended by Small, Amen, and other mental health experts — for children and adults alike:
Limit TV news viewing. It’s not a good idea for anyone — especially children — to repeatedly view violent media images on television, which can have the effect of reliving the trauma. “Turn off the TV,” Amen advises. “Don’t be like most Americans who watch traumas over and over.”
Dial into your own feelings. Adults are also struggling with difficult emotions in the wake of such tragedies. Experts advise Parents to confront and manage their own emotions first, even if it requires professional attention, before discussing the issues with children.
Ask questions. Don’t presume your kids are OK if they’re not speaking up about the tragedy. Some may be numb or withdraw after an incident that leaves them feeling traumatized. Ask your children how they feel about what happened and what fears they have and encourage them to express them.
Watch for signs of deeper anxiety. Recurrent nightmares, lasting anger, or compulsive thoughts about school violence that last more than a few days can be signs of deeper psychological issues that might merit professional attention. “If [children] start to struggle with nightmares, help them finish the dreams in a more positive way, assuring them that they are safe with you, their parents,” Amen advises.
Take action. Having a sense of purpose can help to relieve feelings of helplessness, Small says. “For instance, suggest they light candles for the victims, write cards to their families, or write their congressman about stronger gun control,” he suggests.
Enlist a pro. “If your child seems overwhelmed by the events or refuses to return to school, consulting with a counselor or other mental health professional can help them get through the crisis,” Small says.
Other warning signs to watch for that may indicate a child is not adjusting well over time:
- Withdrawal from friends and family.
- Pulling back from favorite activities, such as sports or hobbies.
- A sudden drop in school grades.
- Spending long hours alone.
- Refusing to go to school, including feigning illness.
- Physical aches, pains.
- Obsessive fear of getting hurt, even in everyday experiences.
- Unusual criticism of teachers and parents.
Free mental-health app: In the wake of the shooting, mental health app LARKR is donating up to $50,000 in free therapy sessions to students involved or impacted by the shooting. The app, whose co-founders are former residents of Parkland, provides on-demand video talk therapy with licensed practitioners through mobile devices. For more information, visit www.larkr.com.