A gunman killed at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. This mass killing follows the supermarket massacre in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, and the Laguna Woods, California, church shooting on May 15.
These kinds of senseless, preventable tragedies have become far too common in the U.S. There have been more than 200 mass shootings this year alone, according to The Gun Violence Archive. Active shooter drills are practiced in 95% of public schools, according to a 2017 National Center for Education Statistics report.
Even indirect exposure to violent events in the news or social media can cause what’s known as secondary trauma, also called vicarious trauma. Research has shown that repeatedly viewing horrific video footage, imagery and stories can be harmful and may even lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in some people.
Gun violence, especially when it occurs in what should be a safe space like a school, can be difficult for anyone to process, let alone a child. While most kids’ anxiety or fear in response to traumatic events in the news is temporary, others may experience more intense or longer-lasting effects — particularly if they’ve dealt with trauma or loss firsthand in the past or have a preexisting mental health condition.
“The death of a single child is an unfathomable loss, let alone the murder of multiple children across the country, who should be able to rely on their schools for a safe place to learn and grow,” Jessica Dym Bartlett, children’s mental health expert, researcher and co-founder of the mental health services group Thriving Together, told HuffPost.
We asked experts which signs might indicate your child is experiencing vicarious trauma due to all of the gun violence in the news. Here’s what they say to look for and how to support a child who’s struggling.
Signs of vicarious trauma in kids
First, it’s important to know that it’s normal for a child (or a person of any age, for that matter) to feel distressed or overwhelmed after a violent or horrific event in the news. They might be anxious, upset, scared, withdrawn, clingy, irritable or some combination.
But when those feelings or behaviors don’t improve with time or support, like they normally would, your child might be having a trauma response, said Tovah Means, a trauma therapist at Watch Hill Therapy.
“The important questions are: Is my child having reactions beyond what they usually display? Is my child taking in comfort and support like they normally do?Or, is something out of normal range happening for them?” Means said.
In other words, some of these signs might be normal if they occur shortly after the traumatic news event and then begin to subside. But if your child seems stuck in these patterns, they might require additional intervention.
It might manifest as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or having nightmares about death, guns or other traumatic events.
“If your child is younger, look for cues that they are trying to draw out their bedtime routine for longer than usual,” said Abigail Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “Are they asking more questions than usual or requesting for more stories? They may not want you to leave for fear of being alone or left to think about their fears.”
Toddlers lack the language skills to express their fears verbally, so their reactions often show up in their behavior. That might look like difficulty separating from caregivers, or excessive crying or whining, Bartlett noted. Young kids may be weepy and tell their parents they don’t want them to leave. Older kids may worry about their own safety, as well as the safety of their friends and family. They might also be scared to be alone.
“In older children, who may want to better conceal their fears, it may be expressed as a simple question of ‘What time do you think you’ll be back?’ or a text message asking ‘Where are you?’” Makepeace said.
“For all ages, you might sense feelings of apprehension or anxiety being evoked from your child when being dropped off or left somewhere, such as school,” Makepeace added.
Preschool-age children may act out violent themes in their play and engage in challenging behaviors, such as tantrums, more than usual, Bartlett said. They may also regress in terms of potty training, eating or sleeping independently.
Older kids and teens may behave in risky or self-destructive ways, including getting into fights, drinking, using drugs, having unprotected sex or engaging in activities likely to cause injury, Bartlett noted.
In some cases, kids may appear to be having no reaction to what’s happening in the news, or might seem numb.
“Do they seem distant or more quiet than usual?” Means said. “Are they distracted or not focusing as well? This can be a sign that what happened is too overwhelming and they are in a ‘shutdown mode’ — not able to process what they have witnessed, yet disturbed by it internally.”
Your child might also lose interest in things they usually enjoy. Maybe they no longer want to go to baseball practice or art class, or seem unusually reserved.
Your child may have a thinner skin than usual. Things that wouldn’t normally upset them may set them off.
“They may not know how to express what they are feeling and, as a result, lash out for seemingly unrelated issues,” Makepeace said.
Stomachaches, headaches and other bodily issues
Mental and emotional turmoil can also show up as physical symptoms in the body, Means noted. Your child might complain more of headaches, stomach issues, increased heart rate, shortness of breath or restlessness.
How to support your child
Kids who are exposed to gun violence, even indirectly, need emotional support from the adults in their lives, Bartlett said. Whether your child is exhibiting a normal stress response or a more serious trauma response, the advice below will give you tools to help your child through this.
You want to create a safe space for your child to talk openly about whatever they’re thinking or feeling. You can do this by asking questions, Makepeace said — not just once after the event, but in continuing check-ins.
“When working with families, I will often hear a parent say, ‘You never told me,’ and the child will respond by saying, ‘You never asked,’ Makepeace said. “Ask, ask, ask!”
“Children often try not to worry their parents, so it is important that they feel you can handle whatever they express.”
If a general question like “How are you doing?” doesn’t yield much of a response, try something more specific — like “How are you feeling about going back to school after the recent school shooting?” Makepeace suggested.
Listen to what your kid has to say and be mindful of your own reactions.
“Children often try not to worry their parents, so it is important that they feel you can handle whatever they express or share,” Makepeace added.
Keep conversations age-appropriate
Offer honest but age-appropriate information to your child. For younger kids, share only the essential details. Reassure them that adults are working hard to keep them and others safe, Bartlett said.
“Older children and teens can understand more of the complexity about traumatic events, and they may need adults to acknowledge their feelings of helplessness or outrage in the face of our nation’s inaction to prevent school shootings from happening again,” Bartlett added.
Offer comfort without diminishing their feelings
Remind them that their reaction to this violence and cruelty is normal, and that “it hurts to witness others being hurt,” Means said.
Makepeace said it’s best to avoid telling kids “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” as that kind of language, while well-intentioned, can minimize what they’re feeling.
Instead, “it can be helpful to share with them that you understand why they might feel scared and assure them that their school is taking safety precautions,” Makepeace said.
Limit media exposure
For younger children, it’s critical to limit their access to TV, social media and other content about the event, Bartlett said.
Set aside protected time for your child to engage in enjoyable activities that give them a break from thinking about, talking about or consuming the news.
“For teens and older children, it’s important to talk with them about making intentional choices to limit social media exposure to protect their own emotional well-being,” Bartlett added.
Encourage healthy coping mechanisms
Activities that will help them regulate their emotions — spending time outside, dancing, deep breathing, drawing and journaling — all can be good, positive outlets.
Keep your routine as consistent as possible
Routines provide children with a sense of safety, comfort and predictability when the world feels anything but.
“These include things like regular times for bedtimes, meals, learning, and play, and continuing to set limits with challenging behavior so life feels familiar and predictable,” Bartlett said.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, too
Parents and caregivers are struggling to make sense of all this, too. Reach out to your own support system to work through your feelings. Carve out time to relax and unplug from the horrific events in news. The more supported you feel, the more you’ll be able to help your child.
“Parents can also model what it means to take care of yourself and lean on friends, family, religious supports or mental health professionals as a means of coping,” Bartlett said.
If you’re still concerned about your kid, reach out to a professional
Keep an eye on any ongoing emotional or behavioral changes in your child that arise after a shooting or other violent event in the news.
“Some reactions of fear, anxiety, anger and sadness are to be expected,” Bartlett said. But if your child’s symptoms don’t resolve with time and family support, consider reaching out to a trauma therapist for additional help.
And if you have concerns about your child’s response to a traumatic event — even if they don’t fit the criteria above — “it’s always OK to get a second opinion and more support for your family,” Means said.