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How to cope with trauma after a mass shooting

From The Defender Network, Written by Laura Onyeneho | May 30, 2022

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and other high-profile school shootings across the country all have had an impact on schools, parents and children, even if they weren’t directly affected by the horrific events.

The mere thought of one day taking your loved one to school with hopes of them returning home safely, is no longer the case for the families of 19 children and two adults.

Schools are supposed to be institutions that provide a safe space for students to learn; now families struggle to understand why such tragedies continue to happen and how they can be prevented.

From a young age, American children practice active-shooter drills. No matter how prepared a school might think it is, an event like this can happen when you least expect it.

Parents and schools are forced to find ways to have a difficult conversation about violence. What should be done to reassure children about their safety while prioritizing their mental and emotional health?

The Defender Network spoke with Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, professor of psychological, health and learning sciences and associate dean of research at the University of Houston to share some tips on how to manage trauma after the mass shooting.

“Sometimes we live through things vicariously and when you think of the media coverage, mass shooting, political talking points and being exposed to the graphic images, it can be traumatic in itself,” Obasi said. “So much has happened in such a short amount of time, there’s no more space to stuff more grief and loss down.”

Obasi offered five steps parents and guardians take during these challenging times.

1. Talk with family and friends

It’s really therapeutic to get stressful things off of your chest. Often times we bury things and we push ourselves and eventually burn out. Give yourself some grace to not be okay, to be tired and be patient with your own recovery. Engaging with others helps you normalize the experience. You are not alone in the struggle.

2. Limit media coverage

I think of the whole George Floyd experience. How many times are we going to watch his death being replayed on screen? It’s getting to the point where we can become numb. It’s best just to shut it down instead of retraumatizing yourself and your child(ren).

3. Prioritizing self-care

Your body needs the energy to deal with stressors. Good sleep, having a healthy diet and physical activity are necessities. These are the basic blocks to help cope with trauma. Engage in journaling, mediation and prayer.

4. Have a family plan

We underestimate the resiliency of children. They have the capacity to experience things and talk about it in ways that can surprise us if we are willing to listen nonjudgmentally.

With my son, we talk about keeping your cell phone on you, knowing how to hide and not approach the situation, making sure we have a meet-up location, so when an event happens, we already know how to anticipate how to move through it.

5. Avoid negative coping strategies

When the stress levels get too high, it’s easy to rely on things like drugs and alcohol that get that immediate escape, or oversleeping or isolating ourselves from others. That takes you away from normal routine.

Children are impressionable, and if the doors of communication are not properly opened, they will look at other means to seek information that parents might not approve of.

“It’s complicated when children get older and the begin to see the nuances of how things play out by race and social class,” Obasi said. “It’s critical to know your child. Know what they are capable of without underestimating their capacity.”

During traumatic events, balancing personal comfort with what’s in the best interests of the child has its challenges, but Obasi recommends parents to not over-generalize the likelihood a mass shooting. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents felt the best way to protect children from getting sick was to keep them at home. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences like lack of social interaction and developmental skills.

“Have conversations with the schools [and ask] what is your protocol?” he said. “I don’t think isolated incidences should be strong enough to keep your kid from going to school long term, but you might want to take some time off in the short term instead because how can you focus on school when lives are lost?”

If none of the five recommendations works Obasi suggests the following:

Seek professional services

There are people who are trained and can provide a space for you to navigate your feelings in a healthy way. We stigmatize mental health that you are considered to be weak to want help. It’s a sign of strength to know what your limitations are and to be open to talk about them.

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