The Long-Term Impact of School Shootings on Children and Teens

Health Writer
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According to an article on NBCNews, "School Shootings and PTSD: Trauma Can Last for Months or Years," "Mental health experts say the echoes of such a trauma can last for months - or if untreated - for years." PTSD can happen after going through, being in or witnessing a serious and traumatic event. Initially, students who are involved in a school shooting, even those who attend the school where a shooting took place, can feel angry, confused and scared. For most, these feelings will disappear with time, but for some, the feelings continue or get worse, making it difficult for them to focus at school or participate in social activities and may impact them for years to come.

After the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed and at least 25 others were wounded, The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, published the results of a study outlining how survivors and families were impacted. According to the research, anywhere between 10 and 36 percent of survivors showed symptoms of PTSD and many more showed subthreshold PTSD, or mild symptoms. The report indicated that "very few participants reported no symptoms."

Bursting the Bubble

Dr. Eitan D. Schwarz, Clinical Assistant Profession at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. explains why children may be more susceptible to PTSD after a traumatic event such as a school shooting. "By nature, we must all live our daily lives in an illusory 'bubble of invincibility...' Terror shatters our 'bubble,' and psychologically injures us when we live through or witness intense fear and helplessness...Some people cannot restore their 'bubble' within a few weeks after the event because their brains have been permanenly reset in an activated state. They are haunter for a lifetime by 'malignant memories' from the violence..."Children especially need families to help maintain and restore their 'bubble.'"

Signs of PTSD in Children

Children and teens may not show typical symptoms of PTSD but there are still signs, even in young children. Being aware of how PTSD may appear

Young Children

  • Generalized fears
  • Separation anxiety
  • Avoidance of certain situations
  • Sleep problems
  • Preoccupation with words or symbols
  • Play which includes reproducing the event
  • Losing acquired skills (such as potty training)

Elementary Age Children

  • Changing the timing of events when recalling the memory
  • Looking for signs that could have predicted the event
  • Play which includes literally reenacting the event
  • Non-literal play which may include an increase in violent or shooting games

Teens and High School Students

  • Reenacting the event, incorporating some aspects of the trauma in their daily lives
  • Increase in impulsive or aggressive behaviors
  • Exhibiting typical, adult symptoms of PTSD

What Parents Can Do

Children and teens experiencing a traumatic event need time to heal. As stated previously, for most children, intense and painful feelings will begin to disappear within a few weeks of the event, however, if you notice that your child or teens symptoms are not going away or are getting worse, it may be beneficial to talk with a professional, one who is experienced in dealing with children and trauma.

Some of the ways you can help at home:

  • Spend extra time with your child
  • Allow your child to talk about the situation and let him know you are there to listen
  • Encourage your child to talk about his feelings, through talking about the incident or using play
  • For younger children, provide structured social events. For older children, encourage them to continue to participate in social and recreational activities
  • Set limits on inappropriate behaviors, such as aggressiveness, but be gentle and understanding
  • Talk about the event and what can be done in the future to insure his safety
  • Don't expect your child to simply be able to "let go"

Again, if your child's symptoms begin to interfere with their daily activities, school work or social interactions, it may be time to talk with a psychologist or other medical professional and discuss treatment options for PTSD.