Helping Teenagers & Children Cope after the Florida Shooting

This article was originally published in Psychology Today February 22, 2018.

 Source: Chad Madden/Unsplash

Source: Chad Madden/Unsplash

Last week, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 teenagers dead and another 14 injured at the hands of another student. 

Those surviving these tragic events and their loved ones will forever be changed by this senseless act of violence. Scores more will be indirectly impacted even if they don't know anyone harmed or don’t live anywhere near the shooting as news travels through media and relationships into their homes and communities. At the Humanitarian Disaster Institute(link is external), we have conducted studies with mass shooting survivors all over the country and have found that there are many practical ways to come alongside victims and help them process, grieve, and heal well in the aftermath of tragedy.

Whether teenagers and children experience mass acts of violence personally, have seen it on television, or heard it discussed by peers or adults, they may become frightened, confused, and insecure. For this reason, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be informed, recognize the signs of reactions to stress, and learn how to best help teenagers and children cope with their emotional response.

Recognizing the Signs

For many teenagers and children, responses to mass violence are normal reactions to abnormal events. But some reactions may point to the need for further help. Signs to watch for include major changes in sleep patterns (including trouble falling asleep, frequent nightmares, or sleeping too much); shifts in temperament; and even jumpiness and increased anxiety or changes in play. These indicate that additional support is needed.

The risk of enduring psychological distress increases given the circumstances. Teenagers and children at a higher risk include those who experience direct exposure to mass trauma—including being evacuated to observing the injury or death of others, experiencing injury themselves or fearing for their lives. Those grieving the loss of family or friends, those still experiencing on-going stressors such as temporary living situations, or children losing touch with friends, teachers and social networks are also at a greater risk for experiencing long-term consequences.

Steps for Emotionally Reassuring Children

Provide as safe and calm an environment as possible. Remember, their reactions are often influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of the adults around them. Never treat your teenager or child like a peer, expecting them to process your emotions as well as their own. Instead, seek the wisecounsel of friends or professional counselors so that you can appropriately support the children in your care. Take steps to re-establish your daily routine for work, school, play, meals and rest. Involve teenagers and children by giving them specific tasks or chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life and be sure to praise and recognize responsible behavior.

Do not push children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident. Be patient; it’s okay if it takes them some time to discuss what they are going through. If a younger child has difficulty expressing feelings, coloring, drawing a picture, telling a story, or playing with stuffed animals together can be great conversation starters. It’s also important to reinforce good memories by making time to do something positive together. While you wait for them to open up, let them know that you and others will be there to listen when they are ready to talk.

Monitor and limit their exposure to the media. News coverage related to a disaster may elicit fear and confusion and arouse anxiety in teenagers and children. This is particularly true for large-scale acts of violence has occurred. Especially for younger children, repeated images of an event may cause them to believe the event is recurring over and over. If teenagers and children are allowed to watch television or use the Internet, parents should be with them to encourage communication and provide explanations. Parents should also monitor their child’s social media, as it may be a source for further exposure to incorrect information and angry, fear-inducing comments.

Spend extra time with your teenagers and children. Hug them and be there for them, especially at bedtime. Your presence, even if you don’t know what to say, can help teenagers and children feel more safe and secure. Helping your teenager and child feel loved is one of the most powerful ways you can help. If you’ve tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your teenager or child continues to exhibit stress that worsens over time or interferes with daily behavior, talk to their primary care physician, a mental health provider specializing in child trauma, or a trusted member of the clergy.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute(link is external) at Wheaton College where he is helping to launch a new MA in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership(link is external). He is the co-author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook and co-editor of Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Follow him on twitter @drjamieaten.



What Churches Need to Know About the New FEMA Disaster Aid Process

This article was originally published in Church Law & Tax February 27, 2018

 A breakdown of the options churches now have access to for disaster protection and relief.

A breakdown of the options churches now have access to for disaster protection and relief.

In January, FEMA announced a shift in policy that would allow houses of worship access to federal funds to rebuild after disasters. The recently passed Bipartisan Budget Agreement assured funding for this new policy. After a string of hurricanes devastated communities across the United States last year, causing $306 billion in damage, churches damaged by such natural disasters can now access federal funding as they look to repair and rebuild.

Because access to these FEMA resources is new for most churches, we’re laying out what churches need to know in order to use this new benefit.

National Flood Insurance Program

The foundation of disaster aid is insurance. Most homeowner and commercial insurance policies exclude flood coverage, but houses of worship can purchase commercial policies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) if they are part of a participating community. This is not a new benefit for houses of worship, but it’s important that churches understand the importance of this first line of defense. Started in 1958, the NFIP is the largest federal insurance program, covering 5 million properties. It has 22,308 participating communities and has paid out over $9 billion in claims to date. These policies are available in both high- and low-risk areas, even if you’ve had prior flood damage. The NFIP website lists all participating communities, and the policies can be purchased through local insurance agents. It’s important to note that an NFIP policy has to be purchased at least 30 days before an event in order to be able to make a claim after.

Access to these funds does not require a presidential declaration of disaster—only two or more acres or properties that have experienced flood damage. Coverage limits depend on the policy, but they can go up to $250,000 toward building repair and $100,000 toward building contents.

SBA Disaster Loans

After disaster damage has occurred, churches now have the option to turn to the Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Assistance program for federal aid. This program is the primary form of federal assistance for privately owned property damage, providing loans to churches and faith-based non-profits. These funds are only available following a presidential declaration of disaster.

While 80 percent of these loans go to individuals for primary residence repairs, churches, non-profits, and religiously affiliated schools can apply for Business Physical Disaster Loans. These loans offer up to $2 million for real estate repairs, and can also be used to repair and replace furniture, fixtures, etc. The interest rate offered to nonprofits is fixed at 2.5 percent, and collateral is required for loans over $25,000. The SBA will not decline a loan for lack of collateral, but it will ask for whatever collateral is available.

Because of the policy change, SBA is accepting disaster loan applications for physical damage past the filing deadline from houses of worship for disasters declared from August 23, 2017 through January 1, 2018. Applications can be submitted online here.

Public Assistance Program

Houses of worship and private, faith-based nonprofits are now also eligible for FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) Program if their facilities are damaged in a storm that receives a presidential declaration of disaster. This program provides supplemental federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged facilities of private, non-profit organizations.

Applying for this type of assistance requires submitting an application to the state through the new Grants Manager portal within 30 days of the presidential declaration of disaster. This application package includes a Request for Public Assistance form, evidence of federal tax-exempt status, pre-disaster evidence of incorporation/charter/bylaws, and a Data Universal Number Systems number established with the government, in addition to supporting documentation establishing ownership of the building, proof of use, and proof of insurance.

What’s essential to note, however, is that unless they are providing critical services (emergency, medical, utility, irrigation/water supply, custodial care, or educational), most non-profits and houses of worship will need to first go through the SBA Disaster Loan application process before they are eligible for the PA program. FEMA will not consider applications until the SBA decision is rendered.

If eligibility is granted, churches will need to submit a list of sites damaged, “before and after” pictures, and any information about historic structures. FEMA and the state will then coordinate a Recovery Scoping Meeting to determine reimbursable damages.

What to Do Now

Familiarizing yourself with your options now can help alleviate stress and confusion when you actually need those options. To make that process smother after disaster hits, churches can also prepare in other ways: taking and recording all inventory, storing all policy information in a safe place, and keeping copies of policy numbers and contact information in locations that are easy to find and access.

I reached out to Marcus Coleman, acting director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, for his take on how churches can best prepare now. He offered these four essential pieces of advice for building a culture of preparedness:

1. Get connected with your local first responders and emergency management agency. Local emergency managers can share information about potential risks for your area, including whether your church is in a flood zone. First responders can be helpful in helping you think through creating an emergency operations plan. You can also visit to get started.

2. Document and insure your property. Not all insurance policies are the same. Coverage amounts, deductibles, and payment caps can vary significantly. Consult with your insurance professional to be sure your policy is right for you. We encourage everyone to document and insure your property. In this webinar recording, FEMA and the SBA discuss potential sources on financial assistance for non-profits and houses of worship, including an update on the recent FEMA policy change.

3. Get trained. Use free resources designed for faith leaders to prepare for natural and man-made emergencies—including active shooter incidents. Training includes “You Are The Help Until Help Arrives” and Community Emergency Response Team training.

4. Get organized. FEMA andDHS have developed a suite of resources to help your organization get organized for man-mad and natural disasters. Visit to learn more.

For more on how churches can work together with FEMA, see our interview with former FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate.

I'm a Christian, Disaster Expert, Psychologist, Researcher, Father, and Friend, We Need Gun Action Now

This article was originally published in Sojourners on February 23, 2018. 

 Picture above: Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Fla. Image via Reuters/Jonathan Drake

Picture above: Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Fla. Image via Reuters/Jonathan Drake

If the church is going to bear witness of Christ’s love in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., we must not just proclaim the good news but also demonstrate the hope to which we hold.

I have tried in the past to steer clear of controversial topics in my work and ministry. But gun violence is one issue on which my feelings have grown too strong to stay quiet.

This week, I joined other evangelical Christians who believe it is time for the church to take stand, to couple our thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors of gun violence with action. I became a founding signer of the Petition for Prayers & Action for Gun Safety in America, which started as a vision of Rev. Dr. Rob Schenk and began percolating in the evangelical community after the devastating mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November. Signed by other evangelical leaders, including Lynne Hybels and Max Lucado, this petition upholds the power and importance of prayer in response to this crisis. It also acknowledges that as Christians, we are called to do what we can to help work toward a solution.

As a Christian, a husband and father, a friend, a disaster ministry expert, a researcher, and a psychologist — I believe we need to take action to stop gun violence in our country. Here’s why:

As a Christian: We have a biblical mandate to demonstrate love for our neighbor and to protect life. I have read too many obituaries of innocent people whose lives were cut short by gun violence. We owe it to the victims and survivors of mass shootings, and to each other, to do what we can to try and prevent this from happening again, and prioritizing that in our policies. As Christians, loving our neighbors well right now also means being willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues. White evangelical Christians are less likely than the American public to support stricter gun laws in America. There are many reasons we may have different opinions about how best to protect lives and prevent mass shootings from happening, but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. As a starting point, this chart lays out some proposed policies, ranked by experts for their likelihood to reduce mass shootings, or reduce the number of people killed in them.

READ: I've Dedicated My Career to Disaster Ministry. Here Are 3 Ways Churches Can Be Prepared

As a husband and father: I was volunteering at my daughter's elementary school Valentine's Day party hundreds of miles away from the Parkland school shooting when my cell phone started flooding with text messages alerting me to the unfolding situation in Florida. My heart broke as I thought about the tears being shed in Parkland while I was surrounded by so much innocence and joy. I can’t pretend to understand what parents of this situation are going through. But I do know that as a father of three school-age daughters, I want to do everything I can to keep them safe. As the risk of school shootings continues to grow, I can’t sit back and do nothing while more and more children are killed in their schools.

As a friend: In July 2016, a friend and fellow researcher was attending a protest in downtown Dallas when the sound of gunshots created chaos in the crowd. He was able to run away and get to safety without being injured, but five lives were lost that night. Hearing his story of what he experienced that night drove home the reality that many people across our country have similarly lived through mass gun violence, or have waited for a loved one at a mass shooting scene to respond with an “I’m safe” text. That night, even though I knew he was safe, it took hours for me to shake the worry and anxiety I felt. It’s human nature to want to avoid thinking about bad things happening to us or our loved ones. Yet we must face the reality that right now, our loved ones are not immune to being affected by mass gun violence, and we must take action accordingly.

Over and over again, we see that events like these cause significant, and sometimes long-lasting, spiritual and emotional trauma.

As a disaster ministry expert: I have dedicated my career to helping churches and communities prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. I've also provided trauma support for mass shooting survivors, and after the shooting at an elementary school in Newton helped create tools and resources to help communities heal after mass shootings. Disaster ministry focuses on preparedness, and in the context of natural disasters that means knowing what to do and how to care when the worst happens. But when it comes to human-caused disasters like mass shooting, it’s also about doing what we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

As a researcher: I collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings, and since then have been part of similar studies with survivors of mass shootings all over the country. Over and over again, we see that these events often cause significant, and sometimes long-lasting, spiritual and emotional trauma. Other research has shown that survivors may experience other struggles as well, like increased rates of fear, stress, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, and “prolonged and complicated grief.” This impacts not only those who were present during the shooting, but the entire community. It also impacts survivors of past events, who may be triggered by reminders of their own trauma. This “ripple effect” has increasingly devastating implications for the long-term mental health of too many people.

As a psychologist: We need to be cautious how we as Christians discuss mental health and mass shootings. Research shows that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides, and that the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3 percent. When we over-focus our conversations around gun laws and mental illness, we perpetuate the myth that people who struggle with mental health issues are dangerous and violent. There is a long and complicated history of limiting access to guns for the mentally ill, and it’s a conversation that requires great nuance and care, not generalizations and stigmatization.

Christians, keep praying. But also join us in doing what we can to try to prevent future mass shootings from happening again to more people.

3 Steps White Christians Must Take to Fight Racism and Intolerance

This article was originally published in Time Magazine November 20, 2017


Once again, America is having a discussion about race and faith the exact wrong way.

The recent news that the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships made disparaging comments about black and Islamic communities showed an attitude that is unacceptable and wrong.

Among other things, Rev. Jamie Johnson said that the black community had turned America’s major cities “into slums because of laziness, drug use and sexual promiscuity” and that “all that Islam has ever given us is oil and dead bodies over the last millennia and a half.”

Johnson resigned, stating that he regretted his remarks, and a Homeland Security spokesman said they don’t represent the agency.

End of story, right? Sadly, that’s where most of the dialogue ends within the Christian community. But white Christians in particular need to take some important lessons from this moment to focus on better ways to combat inaccurate, racist and harmful ideologies.

Here are three takeaways.

White Christians need to do more

Disasters disproportionally impact racial and religious minorities who are more likely to suffer greater losses and isolation amidst the recovery process. Overcoming cultural barriers, stigma, and racism during an emergency response is an already difficult task.

The nation witnessed some of these cultural hurdles in the response to New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and more recently when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The dilemmas already inherent in disaster relief, and compounded by cultural barriers, have now likely been made even more challenging by Johnson’s remarks, which followed President Trump’s “both sides” comments after Charlottesvillepardon of controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and claim that the people of Puerto Rico “want everything to be done for them.”

White Christians must refuse to accept the disparities our country has taken for granted for too long. Before, during, and after disasters strike, it’s our responsibility, as people of faith, to address and work toward dismantling the systemic disparities that negatively impact racial and religious minorities in our nation.


Christians’ words about race and religion matter

Whether we like it or not, Jamie Johnson represents the negative, and all too familiar, stereotype of evangelical Christianity in America. And if we do not pause to take issue with his remarks, we implicitly lend our support to inaccurate, racist and harmful ideologies. Being very clear in our rejection of Johnson’s sentiments is important for all of our relationships, and that includes our relationships with those impacted by disaster.

Disaster response is relational at its core: aid is delivered and received through human interactions. Social bonds are important to the recovery process. Disaster survivors are already subject to receiving aid from “helpers” who may be “other” in any number of ways. Often those who arrive to assist in the wake of disaster are from out of state, and they may also be people whose race, religion, class, and privilege are different from those in need of assistance.


Aid that is truly Christian will reflect the dignity and value of every individual created in God’s image.

Christians must refuse to dilute the Gospel with nationalism

Minority communities are already less likely to trust disaster messaging if they don’t trust the messenger. As a result, those who are conveying the message can be just as important as the message itself.

Though little has been reported thus far, Johnson occasionally leveraged his position as a faith-leader and his disaster relief platform to promote a religiously guised political agenda. On the popular blog site Medium, Johnson wrote, in September, after addressing the annual United Pentecostal Churches International Convention:

“Once I started speaking, it didn’t take long to sense the high level of support that these pastors have for President Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda.” Johnson seemed to equate spiritual vitality with support of right wing politics when he wrote, “The atmosphere in the convention hall was electric. At times, it seemed more like an old-fashioned revival service than a denominational business meeting. It was clear during my remarks — and in the half-hour following, when pastors rushed to speak with me about their support for President Trump — that domestic and international events of recent months have strengthened support for the President among these faith-based voters.”


In fact, many Christians of all cultures and ethnicities who are “faith-based voters” do not support the President’s “Make America Great Again” agenda. In response, we must refuse to participate in the dangerous conflation of Christian faith and nationalist ideology.

Sadly, the ugly comments of Rev. Jamie Johnson not only misrepresent the values of many Christians, they also negatively affect disaster recovery by inflicting harm on those who are impacted disproportionately by disasters. As a result, it is incumbent on people of faith to renounce Johnson’s un-Christian assumptions and remarks so that we might be about the necessary work of dismantling the disparities that make minority communities most vulnerable to disaster.