How to identify grief, PTSD in children

HOUSTON – Grief is different for everyone. Some may move forward without any problems, others might need therapy to get back on track and some may appear to be fine but have a delayed reaction.

Angela Soper, licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in trauma, said our brain's reaction to tragedy is as different between people as our fingerprints. She said every Santa Fe High School student, depending on their experience and where they were on the day of the shooting, will have a different reaction.

“There will be kids who come out of this who will go back to school and say, ‘That was really scary and I’m glad it's over,’ and they come across as fine and they may be,” she said. “Then there will be other kids who will come out of this and they're going to have a really hard time going back to school and they may need to be in therapy for quite a while.”

Some students may march right back to school and appear to be fine but parents should also watch for delayed reactions.

“They'll go back to school and they'll seem OK, and then they start walking down or getting ready for graduation and something clicks and it becomes real,” she said. “I think this is when parents continue to ask ‘How are you doing? I know this is hard.’ Don't get on your kid's back about it but some people will have delayed reactions.”

Generally, these are the stages of grief, according to Memorial Hermann Hospital: 


Denial is a short-term way to deal with an overwhelming amount of emotion, and your loved one may feel shocked or numb during this first stage. Denial is considered a defense mechanism.


Your loved one may feel frustrated and helpless as the reality of their loss sets in, which turns into feelings of anger. This anger may be directed toward other people or life, in general.


During this stage, your loved one may dwell on what could have been done to prevent the loss, with thoughts like “What if…” and “If only…”


As sadness sets in, your loved one may feel overwhelmed by their loss more than ever. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues (lack of sleep or excessive sleep) and a decreased appetite.


In this final stage of grief, your loved one will begin to accept the reality of their loss. Although feelings of sadness may linger for some time, they are able to begin to move forward.

Rheeda Walker, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston said not to rush grief. Time and space to mourn are keys to healing.

"In the short-term, grief can feel like insurmountable sadness, emptiness and loss. Life as it once was is no more," said Walker. "The bereaved individual may not want to eat, socialize or engage in any of the activities that he or she typically enjoys."

However, Soper encourages parents and students to at least try returning to normal activities. She recommends an open dialogue with kids about when they want to go back.

Santa Fe High School will not open again until at least Wednesday.

She said if all you can do is wake up and drive into the parking lot, even if you say ‘I can't do this’ when you get there. Then, parents say ‘I’m so proud of you for getting in the car and driving to the parking lot, let's try again tomorrow.’

Soper also reminds parents to look for signs of post-traumatic stress in the days and weeks to come.

“Nightmares, not sleeping, not eating, having a hard time concentrating,” she listed as signs of PTSD. Plus, flashbacks, which are less common but can make people feel like they’re reliving the event.

PTSD experts recommend keeping schedules and lives as similar as possible to before:

  • Let them talk about the traumatic event when and if they feel ready. Praise them for being strong when they do talk about it, but don't force the issue if they don't feel like sharing their thoughts. 
  • Some may prefer to draw or write about their experiences. 
  • reassure them that their feelings are typical and that they're not "going crazy." 
  • Get professional help immediately if you have any concern that a child has thoughts of self-harm. 
  • Santa Fe Independent School District has a crisis hotline to call for help: 1-800-595-0869.