Helping Kids Cope With Gun Violence

The school day began normally, like any other, for school nurse Robin Cogan, until she heard gunshots over the loudspeaker.

Cogan had to determine, in fractions of a second, what to do next. She had been trained to go into a room, shut the doors, turn off the lights, and close the blinds. Before she reacted, she saw someone in a nearby office holding a phone to the loudspeaker microphone. An app simulated the gun sounds over the speakers. It was a drill. Neither she, nor any teachers and students knew that a drill was taking place that day.

“It was very scary,” she says. “These drills cause tremendous stress.”

For the record, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that, if schools must prepare for active shooters, that drills are never a surprise and never simulate real violence.

“There is no evidence that these hyper realistic, surprise drills actually help,” says Cogan, who is also the clinical coordinator for the School Nurse Specialty Program Rutgers School of Nursing in Camden, New Jersey. “Bulletproof inserts for backpacks. Surprise drills. It all just makes school feel more like prison. We want children to flourish, not feel fearful.”

America’s children are living through unprecedented times and a dual-health crisis: COVID and gun violence. COVID has upended children’s lives with lockdowns and drastically altered conditions at school. The COVID pandemic also coincides with a dramatic increase in gun violence across the country. Schools are seeing significant increases in the use of mental health services and increasing numbers of school staff raising concerns about students experiencing depression, anxiety, and trauma.

“We’re living through one of the most confusing times that I can remember,” says Cogan. “It’s affecting students, teachers, and our families and we have to get a handle on it.”

Whether they survived a school shooting, witnessed gun violence in their neighborhood, or have only heard of gun violence in towns thousands of miles away, America’s children are wrestling with the fear of not being safe anywhere. What children need are supportive, developmentally appropriate responses from the adults in their lives.

A public health crisis

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death of children and teens in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surpassing motor vehicle accidents for the first time on record. Gun violence ended the lives of more than 45,000 people in 2020, the CDC reported; the most gun deaths than any other year on record. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a historic increase of 35% in the firearm homicide rate, resulting in the highest firearm homicide rate in more than 25 years.

Gun violence is an adverse childhood experience, or ACE, a traumatic event that occurs before the age of 18. The trauma of witnessing, surviving, or otherwise being exposed to gun violence at these young ages causes changes to the brain and release of stress hormones that also have biological effects on the body. These changes can enlarge the amygdala–the part of the brain associated with fear–and shrink the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with executive functions such as self-control, planning, and completing tasks. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Children do not have to experience gun violence directly to be affected by it. The fear of danger or trauma can distress children, sending them to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. The fight response may lead to actual physical aggression, but it can also look like tight jaws, grinding teeth, or the feeling of a knot in the stomach. Flight responses might look like hyperactivity, including restlessness, fidgeting, and excessive talking. The freeze and fawn responses can often look like more socially acceptable behaviors, including appearing to ignore negative events or being constantly agreeable and eager to help.

In teens, these responses may lead to other risky behaviors such as vaping or substance abuse. They may cut school, talk back, or react with hostility. What looks like constant, mindless social media scrolling may be masking deeper fears and frustrations that they struggle to articulate.

Self-regulation is key

It’s not just the children, Cogan says. Adults–parents, teachers, and school staff–are on edge and experience their own fight or flight responses. Unfortunately, how adults react to a child’s fears and behaviors may only exacerbate the problems for the children. In our quest to control our environments to feel safe, we may overreact to children’s behaviors like fighting, emotionally withdrawing, or being disobedient or disrespectful.

Cogan uses the analogy of public health, rather than law enforcement. “We need to create healing environments, not punitive ones,” she says.

That includes adults learning how to better manage their own stress, and learning skills and techniques to restore calm in themselves and in the children they care for.

Helping children

The good news is that experiencing the stress of a traumatic event–such as a school shooting–doesn’t doom children for life. We know that consistent, positive interactions with adults can reduce the harm caused by stressful and traumatic events. Positive routines, like predictable schedules at school, and participation in physical activity, can relieve stress. Children can be taught methods for self-regulation and calming. They can also benefit from having a safe place to express themselves or talk about their fears.

“Children are resilient,” Cogan says. “That doesn’t mean that trauma just rolls off them like water off a duck’s back. They need us to model calm, safety, and engagement for them. They need us to pay attention and be ready to help when they are distressed.”

Here are some things to consider and active steps you can take to help your child and your community navigate these unprecedented times:

  • Ask your children’s school how they plan to prepare and drill for fire, evacuations, and active shooters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages hyper-realistic shooter drills with actual guns or gun sounds, smoke, real police, and the like. There is no evidence that these methods better prepare children for a mass shooting. Instead, the AAP recommends teaching children specific skills they can use in dangerous situations. All instruction should be developmentally appropriate. If it’s determined that a live crisis drill will be beneficial, it should be mandatory to notify parents, students, and staff members of planned drills.

“Think of fire drills,” Cogan says. “They’re standardized and look the same in all schools. You know when they are going to happen and you know what you are trying to accomplish by doing the drill. It’s a similar approach.”

  • Remember, mental health is about health, not stigmatizing.

Individuals and communities can consider adopting language that uses a public health framing, rather than a law enforcement framing. If you’re concerned about a student and think they may pose a danger to themselves or others, then you’re doing a wellness check, rather than a threat assessment, for example.

  • Don’t take children’s behavior personally.

They may withdraw or withhold information. They may use profanity. They may walk or run away from you. They may flip a table over. When a child goes into fight or flight, they are trying to protect themselves from danger and return to a calm state. It may look and feel to you like disobedience, or deliberately unacceptable or embarrassing behavior, but the child in that state is trying to survive, no matter how small or insignificant to you the perceived threat may be.

  • Respond, don’t react.

When a child behaves in a way that is distressing to you, consider how you feel before you do or say something about it. Children need a calm presence to calm down. Meeting fire with fire will only escalate the situation.

  • Ensure your conversations are tailored to the child’s needs and developmental stage.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends keeping conversations about traumatic events and general fears developmentally appropriate:

  • For young children, provide simple information and reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.
  • Older, middle school-age children may challenge your reassurances of safety. Help them separate reality from fantastical or improbable concerns. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
  • Teens may have stronger opinions about the causes of violence in society and how to handle it. Talk to them about their roles in being safe and creating safe environments. Encourage them to talk about their concerns and to seek the assistance of trusted adults.