U-M expert: Community, parents must help children deal with school shooting trauma

December 1, 2021
Written By:
Jared Wadley


University of Michigan psychology professor Sandra Graham-Bermann, whose research includes traumatic stress reactions in children exposed to violence such as the school shooting in Michigan Nov. 30, says schools and parents can offer support to the students during the grieving process, but long-term symptoms that become post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may require professional counseling.

Your research looks at traumatic stress reactions in children exposed to violence. In general, what would trigger someone not in that violent situation?

There are many aspects concerning who is most affected by school shootings. Being involved in a school shooting incident is a traumatic experience, and it is worse for those who were injured, those who were threatened with death, those who were close to someone who was killed or injured, and for their families. But even just knowing that it happened in your school is traumatic. People who have already suffered traumatic events in their lives can be retraumatized by just hearing about this kind of senseless violence.

In addition to keeping guns secured and locked, what signs should parents be looking out for to know that their child is troubled on a small scale vs. troubled on a scale that they want to use a gun or weapon to resolve the matter?

Parents may be the first ones to notice changes in their child. For example, their child may show a change in moodiness or in their usual pattern of behavior. They may withdraw from friends and activities and become more interested in guns and weapons. Or their child may have long-standing issues controlling their moods and behaviors. There are many children in America who are suffering from severe mental illness who do not have access to programs that can help them. Even if they can identify the problem, several parents of prior school shooters described not being able to get the help their child needed. Other parents cannot afford therapy or don’t know how to access it. There also are very few residential treatment programs available for violent children. Thus, the community can do more to provide such services that might serve to reduce the incidence of school shootings.

What can students do to help?

In many school shooting cases, the perpetrators made their plans known in advance. While some schools have systems set up where students can report anonymously about behavior that looks troublesome or suspicious, or even outright dangerous, students often don’t report. After a school shooting students can help by supporting one another. They can also become active in their community with efforts to stop gun violence, as teenagers in other schools have done. Taking action helps healing.

What must parents do to help their kids deal with gun violence — both those directly impacted as well as others who see it on the news?

While this is not easy, most people who have witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event grieve and adjust over time. Grieving is a normal part of recovering from traumatic events. While it is normal for those involved to have nightmares or intrusive memories concerning the violence, perhaps to become hypervigilant, depressed, or anxious, these symptoms usually abate over time. But some children and adults may continue to have symptoms of traumatic stress that interfere with school or work, with social relationships, and with their optimal development as teenagers or young adults. Schools and parents can provide support for the grieving process. Long term symptoms that could turn into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) require professional help.

What can communities do to help with gun violence?

It is important to note that school shootings happen in all communities across the country, and not just in those suburban areas that are most often reported on the news. This is a national issue of tragic proportions. We need to be sure that all children who experience this type of traumatic event get the help they need and that could start by refocusing media coverage on all school shootings, especially those in minority school districts, and not giving greater attention to some communities over others. Communities can play a role in reducing school shootings both before and after the violence occurs. Officials can join national and community-wide efforts to reduce gun violence through legislation. They can also provide resources to schools, such as greater funding of counseling services made available to elementary, middle and high schools, so that recognizing the needs of troubled children can start early in their lives.


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