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Ask an Expert: Child fearful after theater shootings

Denver father and psychologist Kevin Everhart gives a concerned mom an action plan in terms of dealing with her son, who remains traumatized by the Aurora theater shootings.

Q. I have four children ranging from third grade to a senior in high school and we were not involved in the theater shootings and limit watching the news. However, my 8-year-old son has become terrified. Every time he hears any mention of the shootings, he panics and thinks it is happening all over again. He has become frightened to go anywhere or not be with me and is becoming more anxious every day about going to school. Is this normal and can the school help us with this? I’m getting more and more concerned. The mom

A. Your son appears to be experiencing some of the symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress. We usually think of PTSD as occurring from direct experiences of trauma. However, it is important to recognize that we can be vicariously traumatized. This is particularly true for people who are at risk for developing anxiety disorders.

It sounds like your son feels anxious when he thinks about the shooting, and then he seeks to avoid settings or circumstances in which these thoughts are likely to occur. If he is able to successfully avoid settings in which thoughts of the shooting occur, the avoidance behavior is reinforced and becomes stronger. Unfortunately, this leads to more and more anxiety and avoidance. Parents can unwittingly reinforce anxious thoughts when we repeatedly discuss fears. So what should you do?

Tips for parents

  • Address the shooting directly. Acknowledge the sadness and terror of the shooting event. Answer any questions your child has. Explain that part of the reason that the shooting is so upsetting to all of us is that it happened in a happy place, a place where we feel safe and have fun – a place where shootings never happened before. Explain that there was something wrong with the person who committed the shooting. People almost never do things like he did. The event is very very rare, and it will probably never happen again.
  • Explain probability. I use the example of an elephant in a parking lot. I ask the question, “Do you think there might be an elephant in the parking lot?” The child will inevitably say, “No.” I will say, “Do you know for sure that there is not an elephant in the parking lot?” This leads to a discussion of probability. Although it is possible that there is an elephant in the parking lot, there is probably not one. In fact, you have lived your whole life and never saw one. Being a victim of a shooting is more rare than seeing an elephant in a parking lot. It almost never happens.
  • Help your child stop worrying. After this conversation, explain to your son that because we are confident that you will go your whole life and never see either an elephant in a parking lot or a person shooting strangers with a gun, we can stop worrying about it happening. Explain that you, as a parent, would never take him to a dangerous place. The fact that there are fearless people in public everywhere is more evidence that he is safe. So, when your son mentions his fear again, you will simply state, “You are thinking scary thoughts, but you are safe.” If he brings it up again say, “I love you. I am not going to talk about your scary thoughts because it will only make you more anxious.”
  • Set up a point system. Set up a plan in which your son earns points each day for facing his fear and not avoiding places when he thinks scary thoughts. Let him chose a prize when he earns a sufficient number of points. If anxiety becomes an issue at school, share the plan with your son’s teachers at school, and permit him to earn points there as well.

The steps I have outlined above can be harder to do than they may seem, and it is often helpful to talk with a child therapist. If you do seek help for your son, be sure to find someone who is familiar with cognitive behavioral interventions for anxiety in children. Other forms of therapy may unwittingly increase anxiety. Good luck, and please keep me posted.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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