How The Terrifying Normalcy Of Mass Shootings Affects Our Kids (& How To Help Them Cope)

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Mass Shootings: How To Deal With Anxiety In Teens Who Are Scared Of Gun Violence
Entertainment And News, Family

The news of yet another mass shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, has rocked the United States of America. The moment this type of news hits, parents everywhere feel a punch in the gut as we imagine the horrifying moment the families of the two students who were killed learned the fates of their children.

We imagine what it must be like to have a child at Saugus, or Parkland, or Newtown, or Columbine and to get word that someone with a gun is shooting students, to run back to school to try to keep our kids safe.

Vanity Fair writer Anthony Breznican, who has children in the same area, included the following in a tweet that quickly went viral:

"Just dropped my kids at elementary school. Now getting them. Parents are running back, sobbing in lobby. All coming back to get their children. 'We will be safer at home.'"

It's a scary world. It was scary before the Saugus school shooting, and it grows scarier by the day.

Thinking about all of this, I remembered a conversation I had with my son not too long ago about a mass shooting. It has haunted me since.

Late one day after practice, my son Jake sat at the kitchen table, texting his girlfriend about his plans for the evening. We casually talked about his upcoming sporting event, the news from school and how much we missed his brother at college. Pretty standard fare for a mom and her teenage son.

In the middle of a thought, he said, “Mom, promise me you won’t go to Walmart this weekend.”

It seemed such an odd request, even for a kid who is constantly cracking jokes. When his face turned serious, I knew there was more to the story. He carefully explained that a post had been shared on social media warning of a shooting, and that I should avoid our local store at all costs.

The fact that a threat of a mass shooting in our small town was brought up so casually was a little shocking. Was this how teens deal with anxiety around gun violence?

Even more disturbing was the fact I wasn’t surprised. The threat turned out to be a hoax, but the fear and anxiety produced by threats of any variety are very real, and take a very real toll on our kids.

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Life for Generation Z, loosely defined as those born after 1995 and into the early 2000s, is a far cry from the childhood of their parents. Gone are the times of hanging out until the streetlights called you home. These children have absorbed the stress of our times and the increased number of mass shootings in public places, looking for exits when they go to movie theaters, carrying bulletproof backpacks and talking about whether they think they would fight or run in the case of a mass shooting.

The threat of gun violence feels very real. This year alone, we were horrified by news of a shooter killing co-workers in Illinois and another in Virginia Beach, twenty-two dead in the El Paso Walmart, nine dead at a Dayton nightclub and twenty injured and seven dead after a routine traffic stop in Odessa.

Every day there seems to be another arrest from threats. In Daytona Beach, six separate men were arrested making threats on social media in that area. A man in Pennsylvania threatened to set off pipe bombs at an elementary school to distract from a planned high school mass shooting. An 18-year-old in Oklahoma threatened to shoot 400 people at her former high school and had the AK-47 to do it.

The statistics surrounding mass shootings have been alarming since the non-profit Gun Violence Archive started keeping data in 2016. This year is no different.

The American Psychological Association conducts a study on stress in America annually. In reaction to this year’s mass shootings, they pulled data from their most recent poll well in advance of publishing the results.& ;

They found that “one in three adults feel they can’t go anywhere without worrying about being a victim of a mass shooting.” That’s 32% of adults surveyed. As high as 33% stated that they changed their plans because of fear of a mass shooting. The participants found themselves most concerned about an outdoor event or a mall, with school and movie theaters closely following. Our children likely have similar fears.

While these problems affect more than just Generation Z, they are on the front lines as active teens. They are the ones at the concerts, shopping in the malls, and attending school. With that in mind, how can we, as parents, alleviate the stress?

After all, as we are reminded with the shooting in Santa Clarita, we are all vulnerable.

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Licensed Professional Counselor Denisa Millette currently sees more stress in teens in her Atlanta, Georgia clinical practice, Safe Emotions, LLC, “There is definitely a lot of anxiety, a sort of nervousness about not knowing what to expect. They rely on so many sources for communication, social media and text messages, and they get so lost and confused about what is true and what is pretend.”

The bottom line for parents seems to be opening the lines of communication.

Millette has clear suggestions to help navigate the conversation, “The most important thing is to let them know you are there and that you’re available to listen. It’s important to be very real. A lot of parents tend to shelter their kids, especially when something happens. Not talking about an event actually creates more anxiety in teenagers. Be honest and open with them, even about your own feelings.”

The violence seems so widespread, but this is also from a constant diet of social media and news reports.

Gun violence affects over 2,000 teens per year, which is terrifyingly high compared with other developed nations. According to the Giffords Law Center, "Americans are 25 times more likely to die by gun violence than residents of peer nations".

But on an individual level, compared to a population of over 42 million in the U.S., dying in a shooting is actually is quite rare. There are areas of this country, of course, where death by firearm is more common (particularly in high-crime areas), but for most kids, it may be comforting to learn that part of the reason we are so scared of mass shootings is because they are so public, so unpredictable, so uniquely American — but not because they are a common way for most teens to die.

In a Washington Post opinion piece, Sergio Peçana theorizes that all of the news reports, lockdown drills, and preparation for mass shootings increases kids' fear and anxiety unnecessarily.

"More children have died from lightning strikes than from mass shootings in schools in the past 20 years. Still, we don’t obsess about them," Peçana explains.

If thinking about the statistical rarity of a teen dying in a mass shooting is not a comfort, taking a break from the flow of bad news can help them reduce anxiety. A study published by Common Sense Media found that teens spend an average of nine hours a day online. That makes the internet more of a driving force than teachers, friends or parents.

Still, parents can help. They can explain the safety measures available at an event, the teen’s school, or wherever the point of worry occurs.

Talking about our own feelings and concerns is important, as well as modeling empathy and compassion. Parents can also discuss the effect of media on thoughts, hopefully opening the doors to media literacy for their child. This is also key in making sure your child understands that there is often a lot of misinformation about individual events, or mass shootings in general, online.

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If you had told me as I began my life as a parent that I would be worrying every time my children left for a concert or outdoor festival — or even during their normal school day — I wouldn’t have believed you.

We have gradually moved toward desensitization, used to hearing the horrifying news of another set of murders at the hands of a mass shooter. Teenagers have accepted the threat of violence as their reality, but the anxiety and stress of these possibilities is likely to affect their growth and development.

Parents are the first line of defense for our children a safe, comforting presence against what seems a growing threat of constant stress. This is important to remember, as we talk to our kids about the shooting at Saugus High or any of the other mass shootings I'm afraid we are destined to face in the future. We need to be the calm reassuring ones, even when we are scared.

I’m opening my ears and eyes to help my teen son cope with a changing world. And that weekend, I didn’t go to Walmart. But I know hiding away can't last forever.

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Jessica Farthing is a freelance writer and mother loving her life near the ocean. Most days, you can find her brainstorming new food topics or hanging out at the barn with her horse, Henry. You can see more of her writing clips on her website and follow her on Twitter.