Last month, high school students in Parkland, Fla., experienced a horrific event that will forever change their lives. They went to school that morning expecting a normal day of learning and then one man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, quickly turned their day into one of bloodshed and death.
All around the nation – and around the world – people were affected by this terrible act of violence, which is becoming more commonplace in our country. This latest act of gun violence has sparked more political debate and controversy, and while I do not feel I am qualified to jump into the political debate, I do think it’s important to discuss the impact these mass shootings and traumatic events are having on our children.
School shootings have become increasingly common in our country over the past two decades. As an elementary school student in 1999, I remember being shocked when I heard the news of the Columbine shooting. At that time, I felt so removed from the tragedy and didn’t think that anything like that could happen near me.
However, those of us living in Northeast Ohio know that this is not the case. I was attending medical school when I heard about the shooting at Chardon High School six years ago and my first thought was one of disbelief. I had visited that school for high school competitions and had sat in that same cafeteria where the shooting took place. Suddenly, our part of the world didn’t feel so safe.
This is the same realization that many students around the country are having. Shootings and other acts of violence can deeply affect children, even if they were not direct victims of the attacks. As parents, it can be difficult to figure out how to start a discussion with your children after an attack.
You can start by asking what your kids know already, to gain an idea of their level of awareness. It’s best to avoid any graphic details or media, especially with younger children. Older kids and adolescents often have more detailed knowledge about these events, and they are also more likely to have fears about their own safety. While there is no way to completely guarantee their safety, you should try to comfort them as best as possible and encourage them to discuss how they are feeling. If your children appear disinterested, then you shouldn’t push them; they may not be ready to talk at that moment.
Sometimes, merely talking to your children is not enough to ease their fears, and you should be on alert for signs that they are not coping. These include nightmares, fear of going to school or other public places, or changes in behavior or even personality. If these stress-related symptoms become excessive, you should speak with your child’s physician or a qualified mental health provider.
Hopefully, we will soon find a way to end this growing pattern of gun violence. Until then, the best thing you can do for your kids and yourself is to make sure you keep the lines of communication as open as possible and to be there when they need you the most.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.