For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Talking About Tough Topics

School Shootings: Helping Teens Cope, a Guide for Parents

by , Marylene Cloitre, PhD and Karen D'Angelo, Ph.D.

Parents comforting teen

This list of guidelines for parents was excerpted from a guide developed in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007. The advice here is a useful resource for parents attempting to address episodes of school violence with their families.

School shootings or any serious instance of violence on campuses or in classrooms is a shock to both the community directly affected, and often the wider world. Reactions to traumatic events vary depending on each individual's temperament, personality and coping styles. Past stressful life events, loss or exposure to trauma also play a significant role in families' reactions to traumatic events. Emotions differ across individuals and may include sadness, anger, anxiety, worry, shock, and grief. Reactions may range from preoccupation with details surrounding the shootings to avoidance of discussions and information gathering. Adults and adolescents who have previously experienced violent or traumatic events are at increased risk for developing these symptoms and reactions.

Tips for Parents to Help Adolescents and College Students Cope in the Aftermath of School Violence

Be aware of your feelings and thoughts. Anxiety, worry, sadness and anger are all expected reactions to violent events such as school shootings. It is important, however, that you understand your feelings and thoughts. Adolescents and college-age students will look to you for support and ways in which to cope. If you are overwhelmed, your children may react with fear and anxiety as well. Approaching the situation in a calm manner will help your adolescent or college student feel safer and supported.

Do not make assumptions.
Each individual has different reactions and responses to a traumatic event. It is important that you do not make assumptions about your children's thoughts and feelings. It is recommended that you speak to your adolescent or college student directly and ask them about their thoughts and feelings.

Engage in open communication. It is important that you address your young adult's concerns and invite questions. Listen to what your children have to say. If you have difficulty answering questions, it is okay to say that you do not know the answer. Keep in mind that conversations about the school shootings or violence and related feelings may be ongoing. It is also important for you to anticipate that your adolescent or college-aged student may not want to talk about the shootings with you. The key is for you to create an environment in which your children feel supported and listened to, and in which you communicate to your children that you are available to talk at any time.

Expect emotions. Expect that your children will be experiencing a number of emotions and that feelings will fluctuate from day to day. Even if your adolescent or college student is doing well, it is possible that feelings and behaviors related to the event may become apparent in the few weeks to follow. Alternatively, your children may not show any signs of distress or worry related to the shootings. Pay attention to your children's emotions and behaviors, and talk with them about any concerns you have about their reactions.

Validate emotions. A great variety of feelings can be expected as a result of school violence. Show your children that you understand how they are feeling and that they are being heard. For example, you can say "I can see that you are very worried about going back to school", "I know how confused you are about all this. I feel the same way" or "I can see that you are very sad."

Be honest and open.
Your adolescent or young adult may be more likely to open up about their feelings when your take the lead and discuss your own thoughts and feelings about the school shooting or other violence. Sharing your own feelings may help to normalize the experiences and reactions of your children.

Keep it in perspective. When a tragic and traumatic event occurs, it is normal for families to become concerned about their sense of safety and well-being. It is important that you keep the events of the shooting or other violence in perspective and recognize that such acts are rare. You are encouraged to reassure your children and communicate that these events are not part of everyday life.

Discuss the signs of violence.
Have a conversation with your teen or young adult about signs of violence in their surroundings. Keep in mind that although warning signs may exist, not everyone with warning signs will engage in aggressive or violent behaviors. Some of the signs include a history of threatening behaviors, violence or aggression, difficulty controlling anger and frustration, and regular run-ins with the law. Other warning signs include significant withdrawal from social activities and friends, a history of rejection or victimization through bullying, and a sense of loneliness and alienation. However, be sure to communicate with your children that not everyone they encounter with these signs is potentially a danger to them.

Be proactive. Research the safety procedures and plans at your child's school with your teen or young adult. Read information on the school's website or handbook and ask questions of the administration. For college freshmen, plan on attending the orientation session to obtain essential information on steps to prevent violence on campus and to ensure campus safety. If you are not able to attend the orientation, encourage your college students to attend and follow up with discussion on the information obtained during the session with your children.

Encourage your children to continue with their goals and plans. After learning about violent events, the inclination will be to protect your children and shelter them from potentially stressful or dangerous situations. You may be inclined to ask your college student to stay home or avoid campus. This reaction is very normal and expected. However, it is not possible to shield your children from everything. It is important for your family that adolescents and college students return to their normal routines and pursue their goals as planned.

Problem solve with your child. Talk with your college students or adolescents about what they could do in situations when they do not feel safe on campus. Come up with a plan on how your children will seek help for themselves or a peer who is in trouble or in situations in which they are exposed to violence on campus.

Use and model coping skills.
Encourage your children to use relaxation techniques that have worked for them in the past. It is also important for you as parents to model using coping skills. Relaxation techniques include taking slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm and visualizing a safe and calm place, such as a sandy beach or pleasurable memory. Encourage your children to engage in distracting activities, such as sports or hobbies, when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

Encourage your children to give back. Children can feel a sense of empowerment, control and accomplishment by participating actively in their community. Encourage your children to volunteer and help others, especially at times when communities are distressed by events such as a school shooting.

Pay attention to your child's behaviors and feelings. Your college student or teen may be experiencing symptoms and distress related to a school shooting or episode of violence. Stay in touch with your children and be available to talk and problem solve. Look out for significant changes in your children's behaviors, emotions and social interactions. Do not be afraid to discuss any changes you see with your children.

Seek professional guidance. If you see significant changes in your children's behaviors, social activities and emotions that persist over a few weeks or are impacting their functioning, seek professional help or encourage your college student to speak to counselors at the university counseling center.

Seek social support. As parents, you may need some support to work through your feelings and thoughts about the school shootings or violence. Seek out support from your friends and families. If needed, speak with a trained professional to process your feelings of anxiety, anger or sadness.