How To Help Children Heal From School Shootings

Friday, April 14, 2017 Written by 
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Monday’s tragedy in San Bernardino will live on in the minds of students at North Park Elementary School for a long time—especially those who personally witnessed the shootings of their teacher, her assailant husband and two classmates.  


Cedric Anderson, 53, was estranged from his newlywed wife, Karen Elaine Smith, also 53.  Anderson came to her classroom, where she taught first to fourth graders, and without a word, shot her to death before turning the gun on himself.  Two students, also shot, were innocent bystanders, caught up in the domestic dispute. Eight year-old Jonathan Martinez died and a classmate is recovering in a nearby hospital.


The murder-suicide is horrific enough, but the damage done to the psyche of those children—all of them special needs—may last a lifetime.


What do you say to a child who has gone through something so devastating?  How can you help them to process the unfortunate reality of adults dealing with life through gun violence?


Psychologist Ben Martin offers tips for helping children to heal after experiencing mental and emotional trauma:


1.Listen to them.  Kids, like everyone else, need to vent.  They’re not looking for answers or judgment, only for someone to listen to them. Be that person that allows them to safely express their fears, sadness, insecurities and anger.


2.Reassure them that they are safe and that parents and friends, the school, police and community consider their safety a top priority.  Admit where adults may not have done everything right, but also assure them that police and school officials are working to change things.  If it is helpful, let them know what efforts are being made to insure their safety and keep them informed.


3.When dealing with younger children, keep your information limited and your words simple.  They need to be given information in a way that is meaningful and understandable to them. 


4.Be honest. Kids are smart and good at connecting the dots. If they ask whether they could possibly become a victim, do not lie. But do reiterate that adults are focused on preventing another shooting from happening.


5.Parents or caregivers should be cautious of permitting young children to watch news or listen to radio that is discussing or showing the situation, Martin says. “It is too difficult for most of them to process. Personal discussions are the best way to share information with this group. Also, plan to discuss this many times over the coming weeks,” he said.


6. If you’re concerned about your children and their reaction to this or any tragedy, talk directly with their school counselor, family doctor, or local mental health professional. Suggest to older children and teens to visit a resource, such as the teen-help website,, which provides anonymous and clinically-screened help and resources for teen problems before they become overwhelming.


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