The school was once a safe learning community. This is no longer true. Bullying, fights, assaults, school shootings — the school has become the daily scenario of violent incidents. Young people are injured and sometimes killed. They see others harmed by violence and they witness tragic and shocking events. Although school-related deaths are decreasing, non-fatal school violence and crime against students and teachers are on the rise. (Indicators of School Crime and Safety, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013)
Whether it’s one horrific event (e.g., school shooting) or daily events of hurtful and cruel behavior, school violence can damage a teen’s healthy personality growth and development, sense of security and safety, and the learning of positive social behaviors.
What is trauma?
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. — Defining Trauma, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012
Reactions to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions to trauma differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and responses. Young people with existing mental health problems, past traumatic experiences, and/or limited family and social supports may be more reactive to trauma. It’s common for teens to fear a similar event happening again.
Teens may react to school violence by:
- Having flashbacks to the event (flashbacks are the mind reliving the event)
- Having nightmares or other sleep problems
- Avoiding reminders of the event
- Using or abusing alcohol and/or drugs
- Being disruptive, disrespectful, or behaving destructively
- Having physical complaints
- Feeling isolated or confused
- Being depressed
- Being angry
- Losing interest in fun activities
- Having suicidal thoughts
Adolescents may also feel guilty. They may feel guilt for not stopping the violence or preventing injury or deaths. They also may have thoughts of revenge.
Factors influencing how someone may respond include:
- Being directly involved in the trauma, especially as a victim
- Severe and/or prolonged exposure to the event(s)
- Personal history of prior trauma
- Family or personal history of mental illness and severe behavioral problems
- Limited social support; lack of caring family and friends
- Ongoing life stressors, such as moving to a new home or new school, divorce, or family financial troubles
Grief — the deep emotional response to death and any kind of loss — may take months to resolve. Grief may be re-experienced or worsened by news reports or the event’s anniversary.
What can parents do?
Teens’ reactions to school violence are strongly influenced by how parents respond to the traumatic event. Parents should identify and address their own feelings — this will allow them to help their teens and others affected by the violence.
Teens need to know:
- You love them
- You will do your best to take care of them
- It’s okay for them to feel upset.
The most important thing that parents – and all adults – can do to help teens cope with school violence is to listen. Teens need to tell the story of their experience over and over again. Through re-telling their story, teens are working through their trauma. Don’t interrupt. Don’t tell them you’ve heard their story many times before. Don’t argue about what they’re feeling. Let them talk — and you listen with the purpose of understanding. In this way, you give comfort, show your compassion and love, and help teens regain a sense of trust, safety, and security.
Some teens will have prolonged emotional problems. These may include grief, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some teens get better with support from family, friends, and the school community. Others may need additional care and support from a mental health professional – especially if a teen is having problems with normal routines or if new behavioral or emotional problems develop.