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A Child Psychologist on the Trauma of Surviving a School Shooting

Dr. Randi Pochtar talks about how traumatic school shootings can be for kids, even if they weren't there.

Jakob Desouza hugs Ruth Williams as the two West Boca High School students joined hundreds of fellow students that walked to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in honor of the 17 students shot dead last week on February 20, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for killing 17 people at the high school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Over the last four years, 438 people in the United States have been shot and 138 have died in 239 school shootings. Of those shootings, 16 have been defined as “mass” shootings — in which four or more people were shot by assailants. Some of those mass shootings have been at schools and some have not. There’s been an average of about five school shootings per month. Because statistics are skewed by slaughter, trends can be hard to document, but it seems as though American children are paying a steeper price for American guns. And that price can’t just be measured in death and injury. It must be measured in trauma.

Understandably, the conversation about these shootings focuses on individual events, perpetrators, victims, and grief. Then the conversation moves on towards the next tragedy or event or crisis. It is rare for the public to be dragged back to face the kids who survive. And there are thousands upon thousands of kids who have survived school shootings. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of them suffer. And often it’s unclear to parents, teachers, and loved ones how to help.

“There are pieces of this that we don’t have control over,” says Dr. Randi Pochtar, an NYU Langone psychologist and expert on childhood trauma. “I often talk to parents about the factors that we have control over.”

Dr. Pochtar spoke to Fatherly about what parents can control and what the broader public needs to understand about the trauma of survival and all that hidden damage.

My rudimentary understanding of trauma and developing PTSD is that it is often a fairly lengthy ordeal that can take months or even years to get through. For the kids who survived this shooting, is there a reasonable timeline that parents could point to in terms of “recovery”?

A lot of kids who experience trauma won’t go on to develop full-on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many kids will have a period, certainly in the months after the experience, where they experience what appears to be similar to PTSD. We expect those feelings to decline after about a month or two.

With kids who go on to develop PTSD, their symptoms have become more ingrained and haven’t naturally declined with returning to their regular routine. But we have effective treatments to help. No treatment takes away this experience. Kids will always have the memory of the trauma to a degree. But treatment can build coping skills and really lessen the degree to which the trauma affects them on a daily basis. It can reduce the intensity of the impact of it and their symptoms.

A few weeks from now, it’s expected that the media will shift their eye away from the city of Parkland. But those kids will have to return to school. Is there a standard support system for students who are returning to Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the wake of this shooting?

Typically, in these kinds of situations, schools try to put in place measures of support and safety, like having more security around. That could also include having extra support staff, be it psychologists or social workers.

But still — to go into that building again seems tough and almost cruel.

We want kids to go back to their daily routines. Despite how difficult it is going back to your routine and getting back to normalcy, and although it seems impossible to imagine that for these kids, it’s helpful.

There are times when that will be not enough. Parents might also consider having their kids see a mental health provider to add to the support that they are getting. I think it’s also so important for parents and families to be getting support. Because, you know, you can only imagine how hard it is for a parent in that situation to send their teenager back to school.

Yeah, it must be really hard for parents, especially as they talk to their kids about what happened.

Parents are experiencing their own anxiety about it. Kids are looking to their parents to say that they’re safe. From the lens of the giving reassurances of safety, we certainly do not want to lie to kids. You don’t wanna over-promise. You can’t say, “This will never happen.”  I don’t think that’s something that is appropriate to say at this point.

So what’s a way to have a productive conversation with your kids about gun violence?

We want parents to be able to validate their kids’ fears, normalize their concepts of these recent events, while also reminding them that there still is a low base-rate for these events. Parents showing that they think that their child is safe, even when they are scared, is going to help the child feel safer. If the parent appears terrified to send their child back to school, their child is going to feel even more scared.

The Parkland shooting was heard and seen throughout the world, not only because of cable news channels and newspapers, but also because of how much of the actual shooting was shared on social media while it was happening. Does that have an effect on kids?

When a tragic event like this happens, anywhere in the country or the world, it can have an effect on children and their families. That could be kids who are both more approximate to the event, whether it’s because they live nearby, or other children who don’t live nearby but may be seeing it on the news and through social media. There can be a wide range of reactions depending on how close the child was to the event as well as their own history of trauma.

So you’re saying that even kids who don’t live nearby can have trauma-like symptoms after something like this happens.

We can see a wide range of emotions happening. There will be worries and fears related to the safety of going back to school, and wanting to understand why these things happen. In some kids, you may even see some Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, like difficulty with sleep, concentration, hyper-vigilance and arousal.

In some kids, you might see an avoidance of things related to the event, like not wanting to watch the media, and in other kids we might see an over-investment in wanting to see and read everything. I always want kids and families to know that these are expected. It makes sense that kids are going to have a reaction following an event like this. It is okay for people to experience some change in behavior or some more intense emotions during this time.

I would imagine it’s not a reasonable alternative to try to shield your kids from the world when it comes to this stuff.

As adults, we sometimes forget that kids are often listening. When they’re interested in their game, or they’re watching tv, or they’re doing their homework, you might have the news on in the background or be talking to a friend on the phone about your fears. Be mindful of both kids’ media exposure, and also the conversations that you’re having. Kids are often listening when you don’t think they are.