Coping with Mass Shootings

Mass shootings elsewhere can cause anxiety, regression in children in Oregon 

Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, a child psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University, is urging parents to watch for signs in their children. Some may experience severe anxiety, while others may be afraid of going to school or have trouble sleeping, he says.

“Young children may regress in their skills over time. They may stop dressing themselves and have toileting problems,” Jetmalani says. He spoke to the Capital Chronicle a day after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The day of the massacre he co-authored a statement saying he was committed to doing everything possible to help people feel safe and advised parents on what to do.

He says children’s reactions depend on those of their parents and other adults around them and their exposure to news and social media. “Adolescence is all social media driven, which can really get quite out of control and overwhelming for some vulnerable youth,” Jetmalani says.

But parents should not overreact, he advises.

“You never want to just grab the phone of a child and remove their ability to communicate with their friends abruptly. But we do have to learn how to navigate this with them,” Jetmalani says.

He expects the shooting to come up in his practice at the end of this week. He sees all ages, but mostly school-aged children and their families.

There have been more than 200 mass shootings this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which counts shootings in which four or more people are hit or killed. They come at a difficult time for children, Jetmalani says. Many are still struggling with the effects of the pandemic, which hurt many families of color, in particular, causing elevated rates of depression and a sense of isolation. That compounds with other worries like climate change, Jetmalani says.

“It’s a lot for adults to process, let alone, younger, middle-aged and older children,” Jetmalani says. “This is just another added, tragic, horrible element to the things that children are having to cope with.”

He advises parents to discuss the shootings with their children. Though preschoolers may not have heard about them, he says parents should assume that word has spread among school-aged children. One good approach is to ask children whether they have heard about a tragedy in another state and want to talk about it, Jetmalani says. 

“I think the detailed nature of how you describe this needs to be very limited,” Jetmalani says. A child’s response should guide the discussion.

“You don’t have to share a lot of data,” Jetmalani says. “Just open the conversation to make it available. And if you have a child who’s struggling, it’s really important to reinforce that even though it feels escalating in frequency, these are still very rare events.”

Parents can remind their children of ways to stay safe, including at home. They should tell them how much they love them and will do everything to keep them safe, he suggests.

Parents who own guns should make sure their children can’t get to them, he says.

“Regardless of how you feel about firearms, they need to be locked up in the home,” Jetmalani says.

Jetmalani suggested parents try to distract children from the shootings by spending time outside. If they have a garden, dig in the ground and hunt for worms. Visit a park or go for a hike. Point out flowers and try to identify them. 

“Nature is very grounding,” he says. “There are some wonderful mindfulness apps, too, that you can do with your kids that can be very grounding.”

Focus on kindness

He says focusing on kindness is especially important, including reminding children that they need to be kind to others, even those they don’t like. Oftentimes, shooters have been bullied or are suicidal, he says. Many went to the school they attacked or they live in the neighborhood.

Efforts by schools — and parents — to reduce bullying helps. 

The Oregon Legislature passed an anti-bullying law that went into effect in July 2012. It requires school staff to report harassment, intimidation or bullying – including cyberbullying — to a designated school representative. Jetmalani says parents and school staff need to make sure that students and others know they can report anonymously. 

In 2016, the state created a SafeOregon tip line. Oregon also has strong policies on conducting at-risk assessment to identify troubled children before problems occur, Jetmalani says. Shooters rarely attack out of the blue.

“There are many warning signs, and they’ve just not been caught in time,” Jetmalani says.

He says everyone needs to act.

“The nature of the event itself reflects a tremendous deterioration in the social fabric of our country,” Jetmalani says. “It’s our job as a nation to address this together. We should really always be asking the question, `’What is in the best interests of children?’”

He doesn’t think arming schools is the answer.

“The idea of arming staff and having firearms everywhere is an absolute mistake, he says. “That will aggravate children’s sense of fear, not security. And it will be unlikely to create safety for anybody because people reacting with firearms in the midst of a melee rarely, rarely do what is needed to stop it.”

But legislators do need to act, he advises.

 “We really have to ask legislators to do their jobs and look at what are evidence-based strategies that might improve things in terms of diminishing risk and also improving the lives of our youth because these things all tie together,” he says.

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