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Mass Tragedies & How They Impact Our Children

Many mental health professionals consider traumatic grief normal when it follows an abnormal event, such as a murder. But when it happens when the loss occurs after a traumatizing event, such as a shooting, its different. The interaction between loss and trauma is one of the most critical factors that a social worker has to consider when working with victims of mass violence.

This interplay makes it difficult for people who are struggling with trauma to develop strategies that are both effective and normal for them. For instance, trying to think about a loved one can be very distressing for those who have experienced a shooting death.

Understanding the unique characteristics of traumatic grief can help the survivors and the families of those killed in mass shootings. While grieving for the loss of a loved one, you have to re-create the cognitive schema that explains how life is supposed to work.

This process can be challenging, especially after a mass shooting. Mass shootings often involve the mutilation of victims' bodies. This detail, which many people find distressing, can trigger intense emotion and anger.

These events are not alone in leading to a family struggling with grief and trauma. Sometimes, there might be a sensory reaction that is triggered by the person they are thinking about. For them, this could mean they are not able to process the pain or the memories they have been thinking about. The details of a traumatic death are often the first to dominate a person’s mind, which can interfere with their normal grieving process.

It is not enough to have a good loss history to take a good look at the world. You will also have to look at how trauma and loss are interfering with their emotional well-being. As events happen around the world, people are feeling anxious and worried. How do you help them find hope in these challenging times?

What Is A Mass Tragedy?

Mass tragedies unfortunately exist and occur more frequently than we realize. They come in the form of mass shootings, school shootings, natural disasters, and war. The impact of mass tragedies is often felt not only by the community in which it happens but is often far reaching and felt nationwide if not worldwide depending on the severity. Mass tragedies center around some sort of loss as well. It could be loss of life, loss of structures such as homes, buildings, etc.

What Are The Different Types Of Mass Tragedies?

There are several types of mass tragedies and we will touch on the most common ones below.

MASS SHOOTINGS

Mass shootings are often carried out by individuals with criminal intent. They can happen anywhere. Mass shootings are very common. They are often carried out with the intention of killing. They can create panic and confusion among the victims and survivors.

Due to the unpredictable nature of disasters, people tend to experience emotional distress following an incident of mass violence. Disaster-related distress can appear before, during, or after an event. Symptoms of distress can also manifest years after an event has happened.

A mass shooting is a crime that involves multiple victims. Generally, it is agreed that a mass shooting occurs when more than three people are killed or injured. Mass shootings are different from murder or suicide attacks.

For instance, the Gun Violence Archive refers to a mass shooting as a single incident that involved multiple gunshots. The Congressional Research Service, a Congressional branch of the US government, has not defined a public mass shooting as an event where multiple people are killed and a gun is used.

Since the U.S. has the most mass shootings in the world, it has had the highest percentage of public shootings. A study conducted by criminologist Adam Lankford in 2017 linked the country's high gun ownership rates to its higher percentage of public shootings. Gary Kleck, a criminologist, criticized Lankford's study, claiming that it doesn't prove that gun ownership causes violent attacks.

After Lankford stated that the US has a higher percentage of mass shootings committed by lone perpetrators than other countries, he clarified that this figure is not significant enough to explain why the country's share of such attacks is lower than the world average.

Since the US had a 4.5% population share during those years, it had more than six times the world's share of mass shootings. Following a mass shooting, the purchase of weapons increases, creating a vicious cycle.

Some individuals have argued that the media coverage of mass shootings could incite further incidents. Law enforcers have been avoiding naming the suspects in order to avoid giving them notoriety. Media coverage of mass shootings can influence public attitudes toward individuals with serious mental illness.

In 2015, physicist Sherry Towers and her colleagues proved that mass shootings can be caused by mathematical modeling. In 2017, she said that she prefers to see censorship to prevent the circulation of such content. In 2016, the American Psychological Association released a press release claiming that mass shootings do exist and urging news outlets to refrain from naming and shaming the victims.


SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Although it is difficult to fathom how anyone could carry out a mass shooting on school grounds, it is clear that this could happen to anyone. Even the most elementary school shootings rarely involve multiple victims. The effects of a school shooting on the witnesses and those around them are severe and long-term.

When external violence invades a school, the community loses its sanctuary. The effects of a school shooting go beyond the school and its students. It also impacts the individuals who attend or work there.


NATURAL DISASTERS

A natural disaster is a type of event that occurs when Earth's natural processes cause severe weather conditions to occur. Examples of this include earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. The severity of the disaster depends on the population's ability to recover.

Modern times, the divide between man-made and natural disasters is difficult to draw. An adverse event can occur without the presence of a vulnerable population. This explains why natural disasters can occur in areas with no vulnerable population.

Due to the cultural, political, and socio-economic context of many places, women are disproportionately affected by disasters. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more women than men.

During and after a disaster, women are also at increased risk of sexual violence. Following an earthquake that hit Turkey on September 26, 2019, the country's Islamists blamed women for the disaster.

While natural disasters can interrupt a person's routine health behaviors, they can also lead to increased rates of unintended pregnancy and sexual transmission. Lack of access to reproductive health care can also lead to increased rates of sexually transmitted infections.

Disasters can increase the risk of pregnancy and maternal mortality among pregnant women. They can also disrupt the care of women during and after a disaster.


WAR

Since the Second World War, there has not been a world war. However, during the last 60 years, there have been numerous conflicts and wars. War has a devastating impact on the wellbeing of nations. The effects of war so not leave just a physical mark - it can cause long-term mental health harm to children and adults such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

World wars have also had an important role in shaping the history of psychiatric disorders. The psychological impact of shell shock was one of the main factors that led to the development of effective psychological intervention during the first half of this century.

Another example of the effects of wars on the psychiatric system was the establishment of the National Institute for Mental Health in the US.

The existence of various psychological disorders in the populations of conflict situations is widely acknowledged. However, there is also evidence that shows that the resilience of these individuals can be evidenced by the fact that over half of them survive the trauma of war.

There are various questions that need to be answered regarding the effects of war and conflict on the psychological health of individuals. These issues can be answered through future studies. The World Health Organization and other UN bodies have created a task force focused on developing mental health and psychosocial support for emergency settings.

Who Can Be Affected By Mass Tragedy?

No one is excluded from the affects of a mass tragedy, even if it not experienced firsthand. Literally everyone can be affected in some way. The overwhelming media coverage, social media, and various other outlets that are constantly covering the mass tragedy make it easier for anyone to find out about it and subsequently feel sympathy or empathy for those who have been directly affected.

Some groups that are affected by mass tragedies are:

  • Adults and children are very affected by mass tragedies. Children may also feel the effects of natural disaster or school shooting if it hits close to home or in a similar area to where they are living.
  • Communities are touched by mass tragedies in multiple forms. Natural disasters can physically tear apart a community.
  • Religions, States and Countries

Crisis management experts recognize that many people want to support a school or community affected by a mass shooting. They can help local agencies in providing emergency intervention. International experts can help local organizations and individuals develop effective programs and interventions that can support children and families.

The best way to support the victims of school shootings is to work with local agencies and organizations that have experience working with these individuals.

Additionally, evidence began to show that people who experience a traumatic event through the media can develop psychological distress and mental health issues themselves. For instance, if you've had a car accident in the past, then the media's coverage could have triggered a psychological distress response in you.

Since that event, studies on how events are affected by vicarious exposure have been published. They suggest that this phenomenon could affect everyone from the victims to the spectators. We also have more exposure to the details of what happened on the ground.

Even the most horrific events can be captured in video. In today's context, it's important to know that we see the videos of people who are experiencing trauma and who are in fear. The data also showed that the images of people falling severely affected people's mental wellbeing.

People who are having psychological distress that becomes chronic may want to seek professional help. These conditions, which can include post-traumatic stress disorders and mood disorders, are real and disabling.

What To Know About How Children Are Affected By Mass Tragedies

When children have questions about a mass tragedy, it is important that parents are able to help answer those questions and how to help them cope with the tragedy. You may not know what your child knows about the event, but you can learn more about it by talking to them about it.

Disasters can also change a child's mood and behavior. They can make them more prone to experiencing stress and anxiety. Disasters can change the way children feel.

Disasters can also be very hard on children who have already experienced trauma in the past. Children can become distressed after a disaster. They may also feel sorry for the others who were affected. Worries about something similar happening to them can lead to a lot of questions.

Like adults, children tend to handle crises better if they feel they understand them. Having a child ask a question helps them develop an understanding of the situation. Be open and honest about the situation, but be mindful of the child's age. If the answer is "I don't know," then it is ok to admit that you do not have all of the answers. If the child doesn't seem ready to discuss anything yet, give him some time to get used to the situation.

There are some things to consider when helping your child cope with a mass tragedy event.

EXPOSURE TO THE EVENT

A child's exposure will most definitely have a profound impact on them. A tragedy that occurs in the same community, state or town in which a child resides can be far more impactful than a tragedy that occurs in a different area of the country or even in a neighboring town.

Additionally, if a child lost a loved one, a friend or even simply someone they knew in the tragic event, it can leave them feeling scared, sad, anxious or cause other mental health issues.

DEVELOPMENTAL STAGE OF CHILD

A child's developmental stage will also impact the degree to which they are impacted by a mass tragedy. Their respective age and developmental stage can play a role in how much information they receive and the appropriate ways to help them cope.

Infants and very young children will often have little to no recollection of a tragic event, especially one where the family was not directly impacted. Early elementary, middle school and high school aged children that have more life experience will generally have a better comprehension of the event that took place and therefore have a more significant potential for a physical, emotional and mental impact.

EMOTIONAL MATURITY

A child's emotional maturity can also play a major role in how a child responds to a mass tragedy event. Children can become distressed after a disaster and have emotional distress and/or behavioral challenges. Some of these might be:

Fear of re-experiencing the tragedy. Whether the child has experienced the event firsthand or not, it is understandable that there may be considerable fear that the event may happen again and perhaps closer to the child.

Anxiety and depression.  Anxiety and depression are common responses to tragic events. It is common for children who have experienced a traumatic event or tragedy to feel unsafe or scared wherever they go.

Acute grief. The early response to loss can involve intense yearning to be reunited with a lost loved one, significant physical pain, and many other emotional reactions that may never have been experienced before.

Denial and confusion. Instead of trying to suppress emotions, denial can help slow down the process by taking one step at a time or they can become confused as to if an event 'really happened'.

Regressive behavior.  A child may regress physically, emotionally and/or mentally. An older child could succumb to behaviors from an earlier developmental stage such as throwing tantrums, bed wetting or lashing out as a coping mechanism for the tragedy.

Most of the time, children do not show signs of distress. They may hide their emotions or act as if nothing has transpired. Children may also experience post-traumatic reactions caused by a disaster. When children are feeling distress, help them learn how to manage their feelings. Instead of trying to tell them that they should not feel sad or worried, help them learn how to cope with their distressing feelings.

There are a variety of resources available to help children and families impacted by a mass tragedy and ways in which parents can help support and nurture a child that has been impacted.

What Kinds Of Resources Are Available To Help A Child Cope With A Mass Tragedy?

There are a wide variety of resources available that parents and families can reach out to for assistance with a child that has experienced a mass tragedy. Getting help can assist parents with managing their own emotions and develop a strategy that will best help their child to move forward.

THERAPY

Therapy is a great option to help children cope after experiencing a mass tragedy. You can find a therapist that is specifically trained for children or one who specializes in traumatic events. This gives your child a neutral party to speak with that may help them to feel more comfortable opening up.


PEDIATRICIAN

Your child's doctor can be a great resource to utilize when your child has experienced a traumatic event such as a natural disaster or other tragedy. The pediatrician will not only have the luxury of knowing your child's medical history but also be able to offer advice that will most benefit your child as a whole.


FAMILY & FRIENDS

Family and friends can often be the most stable support for a child that has experienced a mass tragedy. It gives your child a safe place that they are comfortable with and allows them to just be.

That being said, in an effort to protect their family or out of guilt or shame, a child may choose to pretend or hide the way in which they are feeling for fear of not wanting to disappoint.


SUPPORT GROUPS

There are support groups out there that are child oriented and offer a way for children to connect with their peers that have experienced similar. This type of assistance can go a long way in helping your child feel not so alone or as if what they are feeling is not singular to them.


ONLINE SUPPORT

From websites to online support groups to online literature, there are a myriad of great resources available to parents right at their fingertips. Parents can even have the opportunity to connect with other families that have been through the same tragic event and garner advice and support to assist them with helping their child.


CHURCH/RELIGION

Your local church or religious sector can be a great place of support for children that have experienced a tragic event. Contact your priest or youth group leader on ways in which you can assist your child or to set up a one on one consultation with a religious leader your child trusts.

What Can You Do To Help Your Child Cope?

As a parent, you will want to do everything to help your child cope with the difficulties that come with trauma from a tragic event. It is important to remain calm and reassure your children that they are safe. Here are some ways as a parent you can help your child cope:

BE PRESENT

Be present with your child. Remain calm as best you can and let them know that they are safe and that you are there for them.

When they are most likely to talk, set times and listen to their point of view. You want to know how they are handling the information. When they are most likely to talk, schedule times that are convenient for them. Reinforce their ideas without putting down their opinions.

Encourage them to express their feelings. Use different methods such as writing it down, drawing pictures, or even yelling or crying - any method you can think of to help them express what they are feeling.

MAINTAIN A ROUTINE

Children much like adults often find comfort when things happen as they are expected to, when they have a daily routine that they follow. Comfort in knowing what to expect throughout your day by following a routine can be especially helpful for a child that has experienced an unexpected tragedy.

Maintain their daily routine and habits as much as you possibly can. Normal sleeping, eating and exercise for yourself and your family can maintain a sense of normalcy and security.

LIMIT MEDIA EXPOSURE

Limiting media exposure is another great tool that can go a long way in helping your child cope with a mass tragedy. Not only are you limiting what they are visually viewing such as horrific and tragic images but you are also limiting what they are audibly taking in.

Taking frequent news breaks can help give your child and their senses a break from continual coverage of a traumatic event that is causing them stress and anxiety.

GIFT THEM A MEMORY

Have a photo engraved pendant made for them of someone they lost due to the tragedy. This could be a great way to honor a good friend, a teacher, a family friend or even a loved one that they lost. It also can help them feel as if the person they lost is still with them.

You can also have photo engraved jewelry made for them to gift to someone else. This is a wonderful way for them to show compassion to someone that experienced a tragedy and offer them the opportunity to bring comfort to someone else.

SEEK OUT HELP YOURSELF

Seek help yourself so that you know how to help your child and to identify any issues that may arise with your child.  It will also help you to stay strong and serve as a role model to your child.

Can Your Child Be Impacted By A Mass Tragedy If They Weren't In One?

Yes, they can feel the emotional impact from seeing the event on social media. Even if you or your child haven’t experienced a mass tragedy firsthand, you can still suffer from the emotional impact.

Mass tragedies, such as school shootings, natural disasters, and war have inundated the news and social media, making it easy to access information. Too much information can be overwhelming, especially for children who may not understand what is happening or why.

EMOTIONS A CHILD MAY EXPERIENCE

Fear and sadness are strong emotions that can be felt and misunderstood, especially after a tragic event or other trauma. Your child may be scared that there is no safe place to be or worried that it could happen tat their school, home or community.

They could experience a fear of strangers or crowded areas, have anxiety about leaving the safety of their home or even have trouble sleeping or maintaining a normal routine.

HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE

Being proactive with your children when tragedy strikes will be crucial to them learning to cope with it and any potential future tragedy.

Remember to let them talk about their feelings. Explain to them in simple language what happened, be honest, but not graphic. If they are older children, maybe let them help volunteer in the community where it happened so that they could feel like they are contributing to those that were affected by the tragedy.

Helping Your Child After A Mass Tragedy Frequently Asked Questions

There are many resources that you will be able to reach out to for help when trying to help your child cope. There are some important questions to ask, both in general, and to your mental health professionals. They will be able to direct you and give you appropriate tools for your child at any developmental stage.

What can I do to help my child cope?

Give your child the time they need and be present for when they are ready to talk. Tools such as writing or drawing or other ways to express their feelings can also be very helpful for children. Try to help them maintain as normal of a routine as possible and surround them with a good support system.

How might my child react after a mass tragedy?

Children can experience emotional distress after a mass tragedy. They may develop mental health issues like anxiety and depression and become withdrawn. Disasters can be particularly hard on children whom have experienced trauma in the past. They may worry about the same disaster happening to them or to their community.

Should I move my family after a mass tragedy has happened in our community?

Moving away from the site of a mass tragedy in a community may give you visual relief from what happened but it also does not remove the event from your life or from your past history. Talking with a therapist or a grief counselor as well as talking as a family before any decisions are made can aid in making a decision that is right for the family as a whole.

How do I explain tragedy to my child?

If a child hears about a disaster, they should be informed as soon as possible to prevent them from overhearing others or being influenced by the media. Use words that your child can understand. Listen to your child for factual information. Talking about a tragedy can help your child understand what happened and begin to cope with it. Your child might experience intense emotions following a tragic event.

How do I start a conversation with my child about mass tragedies?

You can start a conversation with your child by first asking about their day. Did anything new happen today? Depending on the age and the context of the tragedy, gently approach the conversation with your child. Explain to them in simple language what happened, be honest, but not graphic. And remember to let them talk about their feelings and patiently and truthfully answer their questions as best you can - age appropriately.

What resources are out there to help my child cope with a mass tragedy?

There are several resources out there that parents and families can take advantage of to help their child cope. Therapists and support groups can give your child a safe place where they are with others that have experienced the same thing or with peers and/or adults that can help. Your child's pediatrician and family and friends can also be a great source of support in helping your child cope and move forward.

Also, don't hesitate to look online for resources for you and your child that can provide information on dealing with the challenges of a mass tragedy and how to return to a 'normal' way of life.

What signs do I look for in my child after they have been through a mass tragedy?

Watch for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety. Most children will experience these emotions after a traumatic event. They may also change their behavior due to their response.

They may experience difficulty sleeping, eating, and concentrating on school work. Talk about their feelings or journal about them. Some children may find art interesting to them. Take "news breaks" and limit media exposure about the mass tragedy - especially for younger children.

Should I let my child attend a funeral of someone they know that died in a mass tragedy?

That is a personal family decision and every child's coping ability is individual and unique to them. If you feel it would help your child cope and/or bring them some closure, then attending the services might be a good idea. However, if you feel this could bring added distress, anxiety or upset your child in some way, then maybe look for an alternative way for your child to say their good-byes.

Helping Your Child Find A New Normal: Mass Tragedies & Moving Forward

As mass tragedies have become more prevalent in recent times, it is important for parents to remember the impact that these events can have on our children. Factors such as the age of the child, the event itself and a child's exposure to the event can all play a role in how a child responds immediately and in the days after.

Taking advantage of resources such as therapists, family doctors and support groups as well as providing a sound support system with family and friends can help your child cope and recover so they can move forward.

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July 16, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus