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Ways for Families to Cope with School Shootings


Ways for Families to Cope with School Shootings

Available en Español

After a school shooting, families and communities may be left to deal with fear, anger and loss. Research points to strategies that can help families feel safe, calm, and connected. There are also ways to build skills to cope and find hope. Learn how to use and adapt these strategies, and when to consider getting treatment.

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School shootings can erode the sense of safety and security people usually feel. This is true at both an individual and community level. These sudden, tragic events challenge our need to see the world as orderly and controllable. People in the affected communities are forced to adapt to extreme loss or disruptions to their lives. Even those who live far away may find themselves feeling fear, anger and loss.

There are elements that research tells us are related to people doing better through adverse situations. With these 5 elements, you can choose the actions that can help you and your family better cope after a school shooting:

  • Increase sense of safety
  • Increase calming
  • Connect with each other
  • Build personal and family competence
  • Foster hope

How to Apply the 5 Elements

You can modify these elements based on many factors, including the level of disruption in your life and the age of children in the home. Using them as a guide can help you create your own ways to help your family cope.

Pick some of the following ideas within each of these 5 elements or develop your own. Using them can help your family work through the challenges you are facing. If anyone is having a very hard time and needs more help, know that there are resources available to support recovery. SAMHSA's Disaster Distress HelplineLink will take you outside the VA website. VA is not responsible for the content of the linked site. is available 24/7 in English and Spanish at 1-800-985-5990.

Increase sense of safety

When families don't feel safe it can feel overwhelming. School shootings can result in an ongoing sense of being threatened, so it is important to increase your sense of safety. It is helpful to give consistent safety messages to your family, such as:

  • "We will get through this together."
  • "No matter what happens, we will do what we need to do to take care of each other."

Some people feel safer by becoming involved in change efforts, activism or community programs that increase safety. For others, it may be more important to focus on what is in their capacity to control, even if those things seem like small actions.

Increase calming

School shootings can cause anxiety. People may have trouble thinking clearly or sleeping soundly. It is important to help yourself and your family find ways to take breaks and calm down, even momentarily.

  • Offer simple calming strategies such as slowed, even breathing, talking through concerns, finding distractions (with books, videos or anything that can take your mind off what is happening), and taking short breaks.
  • Try noticing and naming your feelings. Ground your attention by focusing on what you can see, feel and hear in the current moment.
  • Understand that feelings such as sadness, anxiety and fear are common and that it's okay to talk about them.
  • Think about limiting activities that trigger anxiety—such as checking the news—even if you think they are helpful.

Do your best to let family know that their well-being is one of your priorities. Keep to a routine. Structure helps younger children know what to expect and can be calming. Consider scheduling into your day shared activities that have meaning for your family.

Connect with each other

Be dedicated about connecting with loved ones within and outside the immediate family. Include family members who don't live in your home to make the circle wider.

Build personal and family competence

There are many ways to build competence and develop skills that can help you get through your current challenges. For instance, involve the family in a problem-solving approach to challenges, where you talk through problems; break them down into smaller chunks; brainstorm creative solutions together; negotiate the solutions that will work best for everyone; and take small, steady steps towards your goals.

Role-model competence. Demonstrating patience with yourself will show your children how to do the same. Just being your best self—whatever that best self is in that moment given the circumstances—will inspire others. As you strive to do your best remember to keep your expectations realistic. A crisis can make it hard to keep up our usual standards in what we think, feel, or do. You may need to adapt your expectations of what a good day is, and of what you demand from yourself.

Foster hope

It is natural that families may be scared, in shock, angry, sorrowful or discouraged following school shootings. This is particularly true for those in the communities where the violence took place. Focusing on the ways you and your family are safe or strong can help to foster hope. You can also discuss positive things that you see others doing, ways you believe that the situation will become better with time, or ways in which you are grateful. Ask others in your life to share how they have maintained hope or seen things from a more hopeful perspective. Highlight that many people are working hard to keep schools safe and help people recover.

Many people turn to their values or beliefs as a way to make meaning or raise hope in a difficult time. For some, that might mean helping others or engaging in protest and activism. Others who have faith in a higher power spend more time in activities that foster those beliefs, like prayer, meditation, reading or reflection. Researchers have found that resilient families share open communication about feelings, engage in group problem-solving, make meaning in the face of adversity, share their hopes in overcoming challenges, encourage each other, and work to tolerate uncertainty. They also find ways to transform adversity through beliefs, positive growth, spirituality or religion.


The strategies you choose can make a difference in maintaining hope, ability to endure, connectedness, ability to remain calm, and sense of safety. As you practice these actions, adapt them to your current circumstances. Do your best from moment to moment and remember that you don't need to be perfect or steady at all times. Try to be kind to yourself and remember that anything you do to role model these strategies will help your children grow and be able to help others as friends or caregivers themselves.

People who are more directly affected by the shooting or those with previous histories of trauma or prior mental health conditions may need to get more tailored or individual support. Meeting with others who have faced similar challenges can help, however, mental health treatment may also be needed. If you feel very distressed or unable to function, contact a medical or mental health provider. There are effective treatments for acute stress disorder, PTSD, and complicated grief—all problems that can develop after a trauma. The sooner you get help, the sooner you will start to feel better.

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Also see: VA Mental Health