After a School Shooting, Some Teens May Refuse to Go Back to School. Here’s Why, and What You Should Do About It.

Just this week, there was a tragic school shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, a city in Los Angeles County, California. The 16-year-old shooter killed two teenagers and wounded three other teens before classes began for the day. At Evolve Treatment Centers, we are extremely distressed by this incident. We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the high school students who lost their lives, were wounded, and were otherwise impacted by this tragic incident.

Tragically, teens in this generation are growing up in an environment where school shootings are all-too-common.  Just this past year alone, there have been almost two dozen shootings on school property, according to CNN.

School Shootings Can Lead to Anxiety and PTSD in Teens

The disturbing frequency of school shootings all over the country worries parents and the teen students themselves. “It’s totally terrifying. It’s a visceral reaction,” says Judy Sylvia, Chief Business Development Officer at Evolve Treatment Centers, whose 13 locations include an adolescent residential treatment center in Gilroy, the site of another mass shooting earlier this year.

Sylvia has two children—both teens—so she is all-too-familiar with the unspoken tension after a shooting. Experiencing a school shooting, or even hearing about it in the news, can be traumatic to many teens. Some adolescents may start exhibiting symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, or other mental health and behavioral disorders. After a shooting, some teens may even start refusing to go to school, even if a shooting never occurred in their school, or near their hometown.

“Some adolescents could be too anxious to go to school,” says Sylvia, “because what if the next active shooter is one of their classmates? Even when they sit in class, they’re looking around for possible escape routes.”

Emotional Trauma for Teens

There’s damage done whenever a shooting occurs. Even if teens involved in school shootings come out physically unscathed, inevitably there’s emotional trauma. In the unfortunate situation where a teen is involved in a shooting, parents should expect them to experience a range of symptoms.

“Expect flashbacks of the event,” says Arielle Werblun, LMFT, Program Director at Evolve Treatment Centers in Bel Air, Los Angeles. “After a traumatic event like a shooting, teens can start feeling a heightened sense of anxiety and sadness, and be on higher alert. It’s also very common to get more uneasy in big crowds, especially with strangers. Teens can start having trust issues in general. The combination of uncertainty and trauma mixed together can be very unsettling.”

These symptoms can even apply to teens who experienced the shooting through the lens of media coverage.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In severe cases, teens can even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In PTSD, negative symptoms are extreme, last for longer than a month and interrupt a teen’s regular functioning. Treatment for PTSD can include a range of interventions, including EMDR, DBT, CBT, and medication.  But Werblun says that many teens who experience a shooting can have symptoms of trauma without actually having the PTSD diagnosis.

“As with many mental health issues, the longer you leave something unprocessed, the worse the issues can get over time.” In fact, many mental health disorders today are a result of untreated childhood traumas. She advises parents to get help for their adolescent immediately after they believe their teen experienced a trauma—whether it’s a mass shooting, natural disaster, or bullying at school.

“Traumatic events are never just forgotten,” says Werblun. “When we experience something traumatic, especially as adolescents or children, our subconscious remembers the feelings associated with the event, even if we don’t remember exactly what the event was.” That buried memory ends up causing the aforementioned symptoms like hyperarousal, flashbacks, and anxiety.

What Parents Can Do

So what can parents do for their teens, who are growing up in a generation where shootings are this common? In extreme situations, what can a parent do if their adolescent is so anxious that they’re refusing to return to school?

Werblun says it’s important to validate any feelings that arise in relation to feeling anxious or fearful—whether your teen was involved in a shooting or is just scared of one happening. “At first, just validate their experience. Talk about their emotions. Respect any and all feelings, refraining from judgment.”

If a teen is so anxious and scared that he or she doesn’t want to go to school, Werblun advises not forcing them to right away. “Don’t be too sure that going back to school will make it all better. In most cases, that could worsen your teen’s symptoms.”

Treatment Before School

She says that getting mental health treatment is key when it comes to anxiety or trauma after a school shooting. “Teens need to have the appropriate tools to deal with their anxiety and trauma in the classroom setting, such as distress tolerance and emotion regulation techniques.”

Such skills are often taught in partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient (IOP) programs, as well as mental health residential treatment centers for teens.

How are they helpful for teens who have experienced trauma?

Distress tolerance techniques help teens learn how to manage the flashbacks and heightened anxiety after a traumatic event. Emotion regulation skills will teach adolescents how to take more control of their emotions, “so that they don’t feel scared and on edge and debilitated from that experience constantly, 24/7.”

“Of course, overcoming any source of trauma or distress is much easier said than done. But that’s why treatment centers like Evolve exist,” says Werblun.

Going Back to School

Werblun clarifies, however, that school should never be postponed indefinitely, just because a teen is too nervous to attend.  It should always be the end goal.

“Adolescents need structure. Teens, give yourself a goal of when you feel like you can go back to school, whether that’s four weeks from now or two months. And you can ease into school gradually with the skills you’ve learned.”

After treatment, she recommends parents find a schedule their children are comfortable with. “Maybe they don’t have to go for the full five days a week. Maybe they can go just the mornings or just the afternoons. Most schools can offer special accommodations to teens who are getting the mental health treatment they need. As parents, a priority is making sure your teens get the appropriate support necessary to heal from whatever trauma has been experienced, so they can slowly rebuild trust within themselves and trust in others.”