Parenting a Child Affected by a Traumatic Incident

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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A father comforting a daughter
I was a first responder lending mental health support to kids rescued from Columbine High School. So when I hear of the latest school shooting, I feel sickened that another community has to cope with the aftermath.

Nearly two decades later, the sights, sounds and smells remain etched in my mind.

I was a first responder lending mental health support to kids rescued from Columbine High School. So when I hear of the latest school shooting, I feel sickened that another community has to cope with the aftermath.

For those affected, a tragedy becomes part of their life story. But it doesn’t stop there. Tragedies leave an imprint on community members and those who, for whatever reason, strongly identify with the victims and/or the perpetrator(s).

The way parents and caregivers react can help calm fears, create a supportive environment, instill hope and lessen potential long-term effects on their children. 

Calming Fears

The most normal reaction for parents following a school shooting or similar tragic event is anxiety around two questions:

Is my child safe from being a victim of a school shooting?

The potential for school violence is different in each community; however, it’s highly unlikely a child will be killed at the hands of a school shooter. And ruminating on the possibility will only raise your level of anxiety.

On the other hand, taking action reduces anxiety. To be proactive, parents can question school administrators, teachers and local law enforcement officials about plans to protect students from school violence.

Could my child commit a similar crime?

Not many parents would outwardly admit it, but as a mental health practitioner and first responder, I can tell you this is a common thought after a school shooting. The fear is driven by the erroneous reports soon after a tragedy that paint a picture of the perpetrator as a quiet, kind person who didn’t show any signs of problems prior to the incident.

Those reports often come from media interviews of peers who had only a casual acquaintance with the shooter or initial reporting that finds no evidence of previous criminal activity. Misinformation is abundant following any tragic event. Unfortunately, some members of the news media prioritize being the first to report over the accuracy of details.

When parents hear such reports, they may think, “Maybe I’m missing something with my own son. Will he wake up one morning and decide to shoot up a school?”

The answer is most likely, “no.” For the most part, normally developing, healthy, well-adjusted kids do not kill their classmates. That’s true even for those who may be experiencing current difficulties—and nearly all kids experience difficulties, especially during adolescence.

A full investigation into perpetrators typically turns up evidence of longstanding patterns of physical, psychological, social, emotional, and/or academic problems. It’s typically not a single problem that leads to such a crime but a combination of factors including diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, years of disconnection from peers, incessant bullying, alcohol and other drug use, exposure to various forms of abuse, exposure to violent video games and movies, family violence and disconnection from family members, and/or violence against animals.

Since it’s hard to predict which struggling youth might plan an attack (the vast majority are premeditated, not impulsiveparents of kids dealing with one or more of the problems above may want to consult a licensed mental health professional. They should choose one with crisis and trauma assessment and treatment experience and ask the clinician to evaluate a son or daughter’s potential risk for hurting himself/herself or others.

Creating a Supportive Environment

When people are exposed to a traumatic event, their “fight or flight” response kicks in, adrenaline flows and they set their sights on survival. That depletes a lot of energy, leaving an individual physically and emotionally drained once the incident is over. Support then, begins with emphasizing and modeling good self-care.

Parents need to remind themselves and their kids to eat, sleep, drink plenty of water, exercise and if possible, get some sunshine each day. Traumatic events can deplete the appetite so those affected by trauma may better tolerate small amounts of food every few hours.

After trauma, people typically forget to drink water. Hydration is important for healthy digestion and allows rehydration. Much of the immediate help I provided as a disaster mental health responder was related to getting victims necessities like food, water, blankets and so on. (The counseling typically came later.)

Daily rigorous exercise gives people a healthy outlet for anger, frustration and fear. Many potential retaliatory acts can be avoided by a hard-fought game of basketball, a long run or a vigorous workout. Outdoor activity on a sunny day is especially helpful since sunshine provides Vitamins K, D and B vitamins that fight stress.  Furthermore, reasonable amounts of exposure to the sun tend to make people feel tired and sleep is essential after a traumatic event.

Responding to Your Own Emotional Reactions

We all have different emotional reactions to traumatic events, ranging from complete denial and emotional shut-down to erupting in crying fits and panic attacks. As a parent, you can model emotional management with these strategies:

  1. Listen; don’t judgeAllow for a lack of emotion or frequent venting without judging. We all need to be allowed to feel whatever we feel. It’s normal for different family members to have very different reactions to trauma. Dramatic and loud expressions of emotions can be healthy but need to be curtailed if they put someone in danger.
  2. Encourage discussion. Allowing kids to process emotions out loud helps give clues about how to help. They’re turning to us parents for comfort so we should reserve our own raw discussions with other adults, not our kids. It’s important for parents to be honest and authentic, but also considerate of age-appropriate communication.
  3. Find a balance between structured activities and relaxation. Continue to follow through on structured activities known to reduce stress and anxiety, but allow for time away from routines that tend to cause stress.
  4. Engage in activities that evoke positive emotions. Participation in favorite hobbies or satisfying events can help parents begin to regain balance between positive and negative emotions.
  5. Give some space, but stay connected. Traumatized individuals sometimes distance themselves from loved ones convinced they are “damaged” and might transfer that damage onto others. This is especially hard for loved ones who have a natural desire to offer comfort. Striking a balance between creating some space between family members and staying connected helps maintain those anxiety reducing relationships.
  6. Pray regularly to express your emotions to God and ask for help in coping.While you are praying for yourself, your family, victims and their families and friends, remember to pray for the family members of the perpetrator(s). Their suffering is complicated and extraordinary and they may have had little to do with the decision their family member made to hurt other people.

Instill Hope

“Why did this happen?” “Where was God?” Those are natural questions after a tragic event. It might be helpful to discuss these questions with mentors, pastors or trusted friends before answering kids.

While it’s hard to reconcile the image of a loving, righteous God in the midst of tragic loss, we parents need to stay focused on the sovereignty of God. The One who was violently killed by his fellow men has empathy for others who experience violence.

Hold Off on the Christian-ese

Well-meaning Christian parents tend to offer answers in the form of Bible verses, prayers and the suggestion to attend church. However that can backfire. Traumatized kids may hear such solutions as discounting their real, raw emotions.

If kids request to do those things, great, but parents need to allow time and space for grieving. At the right time, when you intuitively sense openness to spiritual encouragement, use scripture, prayer and fellowship with other Christians as tools for healing.

Finally, we parents need to remind kids that God never leaves us, that our only hope is in Christ Jesus and that God was not the cause of the tragedy. Rather, a human being made a choice to harm his or her peers. The question of why God allowed it to happen can open up many opportunities for discussions about the place of human suffering in God’s plan but the timing of these discussions deserves careful consideration.

When parents have answered the most anxiety-producing questions and taken steps to manage their own emotions, they are poised to listen to their kids’ questions and to help them process their fears and frustrations.

This general information may not answer all your questions after a trauma such as a school shooting. If you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to call Focus on the Family at 1-855-771 HELP (4357) to speak with a counselor and/or receive a referral to a Christian counselor in your area.

© 2018 Focus on the Family.

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About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

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