The tragedy at Oxford High School – how parents can help their kids overcome the emotional trauma of an active shooting incident
(Editor’s note: Joe Kort, PhD, clinical director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Royal Oak, is available for an interview on dealing with the emotional trauma of an active shooting. You can reach him at 248.399.7447 or email him at JoeKort@joekort.com)
(Royal Oak, MI) When you sent your child off to school today, did you expect hours later to be standing outside the school watching teachers and students running out soaked in blood?
This is how one mom of an Oxford High School student described what she saw as she waited in fear, wondering if her son was alive after an active shooter killed and injured many at the school today.
Her son was safe physically, but the emotional wounds from the incident may leave long-lasting scars.
What can this mother do to help her son cope with the trauma he experienced? And what about her? What about the teachers? What about neighbors who live in that community? Everyone has been impacted from this extraordinary traumatic event that you hear about somewhere else, not here in our community.
The emotional recovery from this traumatic event is not time-sensitive. “Expect it to take time – weeks, months and possibly years,” reports Joe Kort, PhD, psychotherapist with The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Royal Oak. In some instances, people may not recover from the emotional trauma, he adds.
His advice as a licensed mental health therapist is to “seek mental health counseling as soon as possible.
“PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is a possible long-term outcome, and quick intervention can help these kids through probably the most traumatic event they ever will experience,” Dr. Kort points out.
The students and staff may not feel safe returning to the building, and this is very normal, he finds.
In some cases, the immediate signs of trauma may not surface right away. Your child could be living in denial or shock; everyone reacts differently.
“Kids will be scared, they will be depressed, they will struggle with the barrage of emotions overwhelming them. They don’t understand how or why this could happen. Expect to see shock, tears, numbness, fear, anger, grief and disbelief,” Dr. Kort reports. “Your child may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, eating or remembering simple tasks. They can only think about the event and what they saw and heard.
“Instead of focusing on how or why this happened, focus on love and support. Your child is in desperate need of it now,” he adds.
“Kids live in a world where they feel safe and protected; suddenly this is taken away from them; they don’t know what to do.”
As parents, we wonder if our kids ever will feel normal again. Yes, they will, but it may take time and therapy, Dr. Kort notes.
Here is some additional advice he offers to parents of kids who’ve experienced a traumatic event:
- Talk about what happened. Help them acknowledge their feelings about the event. Don’t try to bury them. They will resurface.
- Offer reassurance. Tell them they are safe.
- Spend more time with your child and give them extra attention. They need you now more than ever.
- Don’t expect them to handle the situation as an adult. Remember, they are kids, and they just witnessed an overwhelmingly traumatic event that most adults won’t be able to handle.
- Ask for help.
- Be a source of comfort and support.
- Help your child tune out for a while. Social media will explode. “Your child doesn’t need to be immersed in it. Taking a break will help to begin restoring some normalcy in their life,” he finds.
- Make sure your kids are taking care of themselves. Make sure they engage in healthy behaviors – eating right and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.
- Slowly begin re-establishing their normal routine, at a pace that is comfortable for your kids.
- Find resources in the community that can help.
- Acknowledge that the world is not completely safe and sometimes we don’t have control over events. Talk honestly with your kids.
- Do not let fear overcome them or you. The horror of a mass shooting is devastating, and your child may feel like this could be a common occurrence. A licensed mental health professional can help if your children or you cannot get over this fear.
- Expect to see survivor guilt. Your child may question why he survived, and his friend did not. A licensed mental health therapist can help through this process.
“Allow your kids to express their pain, talk about it and share it with others,” Dr. Kort notes. “And begin taking positive steps to rebuild a healthy, safe and secure life for your child. They just witnessed it destroyed; it will take some time before they begin feeling safe again.
“Remember grief is a long process. Allow your children to grieve in their own way and in their own timeframe. You cannot force the process to move faster. And expect good days and bad days.”
Dr. Kort also wants to offer advice for those dealing with vicarious trauma. “These individuals may not know anyone in the school, but they may live in a nearby neighborhood or have a child in high school or have a friend who is a teacher. This hits close to home for them, too.” Victims of vicarious trauma also may need to seek professional help, he notes.