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Helping Children Process Mass Shootings

Gun violence has taken the lives of thousands of people in the last ten years. Mass shootings have become more numerous. The innocent victims – all precious children of God – leave behind family members and friends who now face unmeasurable grief after losing their loved one so suddenly.

The effects of this violence on the mental health and psyche for those who are left behind lasts for quite some time, in some circumstances forever. Those who have seen this violence firsthand experience emotional trauma, anxiety and depression.

This trauma, however, is not limited to those who were directly affected or directly observed these senseless acts of violence. All of us are impacted, from the news reporters who cover these tragedies, to those of us who become aware of these events through news and television media.

One’s trauma is perpetuated by every additional mass shooting. Ever since Columbine, we have become a hyper-vigilant country, afraid of engaging in our communities for fear of the next tragedy we will experience. Many report that they think twice about going to the mall; they avoid concerts or other community events in which hundreds or thousands of people congregate.

Our children are not immune to this trauma. Rather, they are more profoundly affected by these acts of terror. A child’s brain does not fully develop until they reach their mid-twenties. When they observe or are aware of these tragedies, they are more prone to experience anxiety, flashbacks, fear, anger and, for some, depression - all symptoms of PTSD that can last well into their adult years.

In a study of 17,000 participants between 1995 and 1997, the CDC conducted a study on the impact of trauma on children and their future. Through their study, they found a significant link between what they called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and things such as cognitive impairment, risky behaviors, disease, and lowered longevity. Essentially, they found that trauma has a significant impact on one’s future.

It is not just the events themselves that perpetuate these feelings, but some of the responses schools have made after a mass shooting. Countless schools in our country regularly practice active shooter drills on a regular basis. As children return to school, many parents have purchased their children bullet-proof backpacks. These are things that as recently as a few decades ago we didn’t even consider!

Our bodies were never meant to sustain such stress. However, God calls us all to love and support each other in spite of community tragedies.  As parents and adults who support the children in our community, we have a responsibility to help our youth process these tragedies and help them live their lives without the hypervigilance we have become accustomed to as a result of gun violence.

First, we need to be available to our children. We need to listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling, providing active listening to what they are saying. We need to answer any questions that they may have, being honest at an age-appropriate level. In these conversations, we need to reassure them that we love them, God loves them, and that they are safe.

Next, we always want to maintain some normalcy in our lives with routines. This includes limiting exposure to television and other forms of media (including social media).  Normalcy includes participating in sports and other planned activities, including going to church.

We also need to realize that sometimes these traumatic events can hit close to home. Mass shootings are only one way that our children experience gun violence. Gang activity in our communities perpetuates gun violence and murder. When a child’s friend or close relative is impacted by gun violence, we need to help them process their grief.

Finally, we need to remain connected to our community and churches as we work together to support each other as a community in our quest to heal from these tragedies and speak out against the violence perpetrated on our children.

In times like these, our children need to know that they are unconditionally loved - that we as a faith community will continue to keep them safe, remain involved in their care whether it be in the home, at school or in the church, and will advocate for sensible gun laws that make us all safe.

Rev. Joshua Warner serves as minister of pastoral care at Faith United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Joshua holds a Master’s of Divinity degree in pastoral care from United Theological Seminary and Master’s in adult education from Colorado State University. In addition to serving the local church, Joshua works in the public behavioral health community as Children’s High-Needs Case Manager working with at-risk youth and their families. 

[Posted August 14, 2019; Updated March 31, 2023]

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