Psychology and School Shootings: Coping With the Aftermath

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Just when we think we have relegated to the back of our minds the unsettling thought that schoolchildren in America can never be completely safe, another tragic event makes the headlines. The December, 2012 shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT shocked the nation. What causes a human being to commit such a senseless act of violence of such magnitude, and what, if anything, can we do to prevent similar occurrences in the future? Also, how can we best help those children who have been severely traumatized?

Psychologists and others have been studying the personality characteristics of mass murderers. They have tried to come up with some defining common aspects and also some potential warning signs.

A major stumbling block, though, is that the sample size for such extreme behavior is so small. However, the rarity of occurrence does not lessen its devastating impact.

When the site of a mass shooting is a school, the tragedy affects not only the immediate families and close friends of those who lost their lives, but the entire community and beyond. In the aftermath, it is natural for a child to be worried about his or her own safety. Parents can alleviate those fears by staying calm themselves and by assuring their child that these senseless shootings are extremely rare occurrences and ordinarily, most schools are safe.

Young children may be especially traumatized. The constant replay on TV during the days that immediately follow the event can further traumatize them, even confuse them into thinking that additional shootings have taken place. According to Dr. Eugene V. Beresin, Director of Child Psychiatry Residence Training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Co-Director of MGH Center for Mental Health and Media, the following are some behavioral signs that might alert parents that their child has been aversely affected.

Recurrent flashbacks of the event
Clinging to parents, or the opposite behavior, distancing oneself with emotional numbness
Panic attacks
Changes in eating and sleeping habits
Increased irritability

Parents who have reason to believe their child might have been severely traumatized as a result of a school shooting should find these articles by Dr. Berensin useful reading.

The importance of parents reassuring their children that a similar tragedy is not likely anytime soon and that going to school is still safe cannot be overemphasized. In addition, parents should look to their extended family, other parents, school professionals, other community and spiritual leaders, and law enforcement for support. The child’s school or family physician can make a referral for a professional evaluation to see if psychotherapy is indicated.