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Rebuilding Psychological Safety After a School Shooting

Parkland, Sandy Hook, and now Uvalde. Witnessing repeated school shootings across the country over the last several decades has created a threat to psychological safety for many parents and children. Many families feel a sense of psychological distress at this seemingly never ending threat.

As a parent, how can you support your child and yourself in rebuilding psychological safety after a school shooting? We’ve compiled some ideas below.

How to talk to your child about school shootings

It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways you can support your child after a traumatic event - like hearing about a school shooting - is to talk about the event. Although sometimes we may have a gut instinct that not talking about something will make bad feelings go away and return things to normal, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Researchers and experts know that the best way to relieve anxiety and rebuild psychological safety is to talk about the event.

As a parent, how should you approach talking to your child about school shootings? Consider some of these tips:

Don’t wait for them to bring it up

When adults avoid talking about specific topics, children get the message that the topic is taboo or something they should avoid talking about. This can actually increase their feelings of anxiety and psychological distress about the topic. Make a plan to broach this topic with your child, and know that your first conversation with them about it doesn’t need to be the only conversation you have. Leave the door open to having more conversations down the road.

Create a safe space

Create a space of safety for your child to come to you and ask questions. Let them know that it’s okay for them to come to you if they’re feeling anxious or scared. You can also help support them by making it okay for them to ask you questions. Even if you don’t know the answer, you can support them in coming to you for support.

Ask them questions

One helpful way to raise the topic of school shootings with your child is to ask them questions. Consider asking what they already know or what they’re heard from other kids. Ask them how it makes them feel to learn about these kinds of events. Depending on their age, ask them what they need from you. Older kids may be able to tell you they want space or closeness in processing these events.

Use books or other resources

Experts have compiled several different books and resources to help parents talk to their children about school shootings.

Caring for yourself

As a parent, our first instinct can be to care for our children, but it’s important to remember to care for yourself as well. Consider some of the following ideas:

  • Limit the amount of news you read about the shooting or other troubling topics

  • Limit your social media use

  • Avoid screens 30-60 minutes before bed

  • Find a trusted person to confide in, like a close friend or therapist

  • Journal or meditate

  • Spend time in nature

  • Walk or other exercise

As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Taking care of yourself is an important part of being able to take care of other people. Consider what it would mean to take care of yourself and be sure to make your own care and needs a priority.

Signs of a mental health issue

It’s possible that the experience of hearing about an event like a school shooting can cause so much psychological stress that it leads to a bigger mental health issue. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of these issues so you or your child can get the help and support that you need.

PTSD symptoms

PTSD - or post-traumatic stress disorder - is a mental health condition that is triggered by trauma and psychological stress. We sometimes think of PTSD as something that only happens after someone experiences a traumatic event, but it’s also possible to get PTSD from events that we witness, whether in real life or on television.

Keep an eye out for the following PTSD symptoms in yourself and your child:

  • Recurrent, unwanted thoughts about the event

  • Upsetting nightmares or dreams about the event

  • Extreme emotional distress when reminded of the event

  • Avoiding thinking about or talking about the event

  • Being easily startled or frightened

  • Seeming constantly on guard for potential danger

  • Difficulties concentrating or sleeping

If you notice any of these PTSD symptoms in yourself or your child, reach out to us for support. Our specialists are experts in PTSD treatments and helping re-establish psychological safety after a traumatic event.

Anxiety symptoms

While anxiety is a normal emotion that we all feel in response to stressful situations, sometimes anxiety causes so much psychological distress that it becomes a mental health issue. When anxiety symptoms reach an intolerable level, it can be helpful to find support from a mental health professional in order to control symptoms and rebuild psychological safety.

Keep an eye out for the following anxiety symptoms in yourself and your child:

  • Intense, persistent worry

  • Feeling restless or on-edge

  • Irritability or anger

  • Difficulties concentrating or sleeping

  • Stomach aches or gastrointestinal distress

  • Feeling unable to control worry

If you notice any of these anxiety symptoms in yourself or your child, reach out to us for support. Our specialists are experts in evidence-based anxiety treatments and can help work with you to reduce anxiety symptoms and increase coping skills.

Finding support

Therapy is a great way to find support in the aftermath of a school shooting. A trained therapist can support you and your family in processing traumatic events, helping you develop coping skills that will improve your well-being.

At Westmoreland Psychotherapy Associates, we have trauma and anxiety experts who are trained in making space for complex emotions and topics, such as those that might follow after a traumatic event like a school shooting. Our therapists are trained in treatment modalities that can help you and your family members rebuild psychological safety. Contact us today for support.


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