In the first three articles of this series, we focused on beneficial responses during the first days and weeks after a school shooting. During that early phase the focus is on (a) creating an environment of safety and (b) helping your child respond to the shock of what happened.
We discussed how it is best if people get some time and space to experience trauma before trying to address whatever post-traumatic disruptions they begin to experience. This article is when we explore the question, “What are indicators that the traumatic experience is having post-traumatic effects that would benefit from additional care?” We will discuss nine indicators. The more of these indicators that persist for more than a month or the more intensely one of them persists, the more it is advised to seek the assistance of counseling.
Changes in Sleeping or Eating Habits
Trauma activates the adrenal system. Adrenaline interferes with your appetite and sleep cycle. Sometimes trauma leaves the adrenal system chronically turned on. When this happens, eating and sleeping are hard. Observing your child’s eating and sleeping habits is one of the most tangible ways to discern if their “flight or fight” response is beginning to wane or is chronically activated.
Another sleep interference is nightmares. Nightmares are normal after an experience of this magnitude. But persistent nightmares indicate that your child is having a hard time assimilating what they experienced.
Separation Anxiety or Isolation
Some children don’t want to be away from their parents after a trauma. Others only want to be by themselves. Significant changes in either direction are a yellow flag. Remember, you are looking for changes from their normal patterns; if your child was an introvert who enjoyed time alone before the shooting, it is not concerning that this is still what they enjoy.
As you mention these changes with your child, it is important to remind them that these are not bad (i.e., morally wrong) feelings. You are not reprimanding them. Separation anxiety or desire to isolate are unpleasant feeling from which you want to see them experience more freedom.
Younger children don’t have as much emotional differentiation (ability to select and express the emotion that best fits a situation). Also, if a student is emotionally immature for their age, they may have come into the traumatic experience with a limited range of emotions to express what they are trying to process.
When a student lacks the emotional capacity to respond, agitation or anger is often the default emotion with which they respond to life disruptions. In these instances, anger becomes a prompt to draw your child out rather than a cause for correction. If the child is being destructive, you still need to curtail their behavior, but try to do so in a way that emphasizes your concern for them and that recognizes how overwhelmed they feel.
Focus tends to be proportional to significance. The more important something is, the more we pay attention to it. Focus is also age-dependent, so remember you are gauging current level of focus against the degree of focus your child displayed prior to the tragic event. With this in mind, realize that after a school shooting most day-to-day events aren’t as important (comparatively speaking) as they used to be.
This is an example of why it is recommended to let a month pass before making this kind of assessment. Metaphorically speaking, you need to let the dust settle before it is reasonable for focus to return to normal. But if a significant decline in your child’s ability to focus persists, it is an indication that a sense of safety has not returned.
As parents we are used to tracking indicators of maturity moving forward: first steps, potty training, expanding vocabulary, sentence construction, fine motor skills, team play, etc. When a child is overwhelmed by a major life event, recently gained maturational markers can regress.
For the child, the disappointment of losing what they were proud to achieve can feel like another loss. In these situations, it is important let your child know you are not disappointed in them. You might compare it to doing poorly on a test after sleeping poorly the night before (something they can relate to). The test score didn’t reflect their ability, but their fatigue. In this case, the behavior regression doesn’t mean they are becoming less mature; it means they are overwhelmed by what happened.
The clearest metaphor for this might be the sensation of trying to jump after you get off a trampoline. The exaggerated sense of soaring while jumping on the trampoline makes normal jumping feel like you’re barely getting off the ground. Similarly, the heightened emotional experience of a school shooting can make normal day-to-day emotions feel like nothing.
For a few days or weeks, this is a normal part of shock. You might think of it as the emotional equivalent of your arm falling asleep if you sleep in a position that restricts blood flow. But if it persists, then it would be wiser to seek assistance from a counselor rather than to allow your emotions to remain numbed.
Trauma Ritualized Play
Play reveals what children are thinking about. Play can also be a way for children to explore things they don’t understand. This is why even unpleasant experiences sometimes becomes themes in their play. It doesn’t mean they’re having fun; it means they’re stuck.
If you find that themes of their experience at school are showing up in their play, artwork, or writing, it is an indication that this experience is unresolved. Initially, this should be taken as an opportunity for conversation, “As you play/write/draw, what’s on your mind?” If it persists, particularly if it is accompanied by signs of distress, talking with a counselor can help resolve the memory.
As we’ve said, one of the dominant experiences of trauma is powerlessness. When the tragedy begins, we realize we are unable to stop it. Events feel like an avalanche. In the moment of tragedy, that is an accurate depiction of the child’s situation. The best they can do is seek safety, pray, and wait for authorities to re-establish some degree of normalcy. It is not bad to feel powerless in a situation you can’t control.
What begins to interfere with life is when this time-specific sense of powerlessness begins to generalize. When the reality “there was nothing I could do” [past tense] becomes a persistent sense of “there is nothing I can do” [present tense]. If you notice that your child is more reticent to engage new opportunities than they were before, realize this is a potential side effect of the trauma. Allow the focus of conversation to be on empathizing with their fear and helping them realize the world is safe to explore again.
Consider this parallel example. If a child was attacked by a dog and then had a generalized fear of dogs, we would see the parallel more clearly. But we need to realize that school shootings happen in a “normal, thought-to-be-safe” place. This can mean it is much harder for children to differentiate which of their “normal, I’m-told-it’s-safe” places are actually safe. Explore this challenge with the same patience and care you would if your child was attacked by a dog and then reticent to play with their friend’s new puppy.
Heightened Startle Reflex or Hypervigilance
The sensitivity of our startle reflex is a good gauge for how safe we feel. Imagine you come home, see the garage door is open (you usually shut it), and a couple of lights are on in the house. You walk cautiously into the house. As you do, you wake your dog up from a nap and he barks. You jump and scream. Your sense of being unsafe because of the garage door heightened your startle reflex.
That is the kind of response you might notice in your child. Again, if it lasts for a few days or weeks, that’s normal. If it persists longer, it can begin to interfere with their emotional and social development. The technical term for this response is hypervigilance and its common after a traumatic experience.
If Yes, What Next?
With each of these indicators, I have tried to note they are common responses to trauma. Initially, they are not a reason for alarm. It is when they persist that there is reason to reach out for additional care.
Naming these experiences in neutral, compassionate language helps your child realize they are not “being bad.” Children often have a hard time differentiating “feeling bad” (i.e., upset) and “being bad” (i.e., having done wrong). These indicators aren’t wrong; they uncomfortable. The unpleasantness of these indicators something you can use to help your child see the benefit of counseling.Children often have a hard time differentiating “feeling bad” (i.e., upset) and “being bad” (i.e., having done wrong). Click To Tweet
A conversation might sound like this, “I can tell you’re frustrated, that it’s harder to focus on your homework and that you jump when someone comes in the room. I appreciate how hard you’re working, and I know it’s no fun to be startled. But these responses are common after something like what happened at school. But counselors are trained to help people reduce these responses. How would you feel about talking to a counselor?”
This approach does two things. First, it positions counseling as being “help towards something your child wants” instead of an indication that “something is wrong that needs to be fixed.” This difference in tone is important for your child to be open and engaged with counseling. Second, the final question is part of an ongoing effort to re-establish a sense of voice and agency for the child. This is important to offset the sense of powerlessness created by trauma.
I hope this series has helped you do three things: (a) discern what is most important to do and not do in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, (b) identify how to talk with your child about these things, and (c) know what to look for to determine if additional help is needed. If you need help identifying a counselor near you, here is an article that gives guidance on that question: bradhambrick.com/findacounselor.