Helping children cope with mass violence

Incidents of mass violence, where several people are injured or killed, can affect the entire community – children and adults alike. Here, a CHOC pediatric psychologist offers insight into behaviors and reactions parents might expect from their children – as well as themselves – and strategies to help.

Coping with violence is very stressful, says Dr. Heather Huszti, CHOC’s chief psychologist. Depending on the incident’s proximity, a parent or child may be directly impacted or know someone who was directly affected. Confusion abounds, and it may be difficult to understand what happened or make sense of it.

Common reactions to mass violence in the community

A child or adult may feel afraid or unsafe

Fearing for safety is a common reaction after incidents of mass violence, whether a person was directly impacted or not. If the people impacted were in places your family frequents or were doing things you do, that can contribute to the fear.

They might struggle with normal routines and feelings

Even if your child doesn’t mention it, they may be experiencing these reactions after an incident of mass violence:

  • They might have trouble concentrating and paying attention at school or work, and may be less productive.
  • They may have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or experience nightmares.
  • Physically, they may have headaches, stomachaches, a racing heart or a change in appetite.
  • They may feel misunderstood or distant from friends or family, and not care about things that used to matter or were important to them.
  • Feelings may run the gamut: sadness, anger, confusion and fear. They may also feel jumpy or irritable, or that they must stay on alert for danger at all times.
  • Thoughts, images or visions of the mass violence event may feel constant to them, and they may be constantly reminded of the violence by sights, sounds, people or places.
  • Additional grief reactions – different for everyone – should be expected if they lost a loved one in the incident.

They may react with behaviors that seem younger than their age

When children are stressed, their behavior can shift back to earlier developmental milestones.  For instance, a child may talk in a more baby-like way or may forget how to do a skill they recently mastered like tying their shoe. This can be a normal response to a tragic event and with support and comfort, they should return to normal shortly (generally within a week).

Concern for family and loved ones may increase

Worrying about friends and family is common, but it could likely intensify or change after mass violence. You or your child may become more aware of the impact of these events on relatives with special needs, or a friend of a specific race, ethnicity or religion. They may grow more protective or anxious about their well-being.

Everyday challenges may seem harder

Experiencing mass violence may magnify typical day-to-day challenges like tests at school, work deadlines, or conflicts with siblings. These problems may seem relatively small compared to mass violence, but this new experience can intensify them and make it harder to cope – especially if you or your child has experienced a traumatic event previously.

Identify issues may prompt stronger emotions

If the incident targeted or impacted a group of people you or your child identifies with, it’s likely your emotions will be even stronger. Others may not understand the discrimination you or your child may have experienced before, during or after the event, and this may lead to feelings of increased threat, fear or danger.

A search for meaning may begin

Understanding why mass violence happened or what systems failed to protect you can be very difficult. Additionally, in incidents of targeted violence, searching for meaning following hate is extremely challenging. This can challenge trust in other people, your usual worldview and more.  There are books specifically for children to help them start to build this meaning. Thinking about volunteering or helping the community in some way can be helpful for children.

How to help children and others after mass violence

Limit media and social media exposure

Avoid the temptation to stay glued to your phone or television. Media and social media coverage is constant following mass violence, but watching it over and over can compound the trauma. Be mindful of children’s exposure to media as well – even if they aren’t in the room, they may overhear news reports. Older children may have their own access to computers and social media. If watching TV or being on your phone helps with coping, try turning on a movie, watching a channel without news alerts, or playing a game.

Answer your children’s questions with age appropriate information

Not all children will have questions after a mass violence event, but if they do ask you questions, try to use simple language that fits with your child’s developmental level. Children may ask if you are safe and you can reassure them that you are and that they too are safe. You can also help put this in perspective: While this is a tragic event and we are very sad, it is also something that is rare. For children, when they see something repeatedly or hear people talk about it over and over, they may think it is happening more widely and frequently than it is.

Stick to routines and healthy habits

Children benefit from routine always, but that will be especially so following a traumatic event like mass violence. Having a daily schedule of eating healthy and regular snacks and meals, exercising, and getting a full night’s rest is more important now than ever.

Remember to have some fun

Give yourself and your family permission to have some fun. It’s OK to disengage from tragedy. Try every day to do something you or your child really enjoys, like taking a bike ride, making a craft, playing or listening to music, or spending time with pets. This will help take your mind off the violence, enhance routine and structure, and infuse more joy into your lives. In addition, family time can be immensely healing for children, so just spending fun time together can help children regain their emotional balance.

Connect with others

Even during times of social distancing, try to find ways to ensure you and your child can connect with family, friends and other people who make you feel more relaxed. Try sending a text message or email, setting up a family Zoom session, meeting at the park for a distanced chat, or make a date for a phone call.

Go easy on yourself

Parents should give themselves some grace – during this time, you might feel like your parenting isn’t meeting your expectations. That’s OK. Ask for parenting support if you need a break.

Seek help

No one should suffer alone following mass violence. Adults shouldn’t hesitate to reach out an EAP program at work, call a hotline, or seek support from a mental health provider. In general, children are very resilient, but in some cases they may need some extra support. It’s always good to seek help early. If your child’s symptoms persist for more than two weeks, you might want to explore other supportive options. Your child’s pediatrician can help make a referral for mental health support too.

Call 9-1-1 or 1-855-OC-LINKS (625-4657) if you or your child is in danger of hurting themselves or others.

Text HOME to 741-741 for free 24/7 text support for people in crisis.

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Stay Informed about Mental Health

CHOC Children’s has made the commitment to take a leadership role in meeting the need for more mental health services in Orange County. Sign up today to keep informed about this important initiative and to receive tips and education from mental health experts.

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Helping children cope with mass violence

by CHOC time to read: 5 min