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A family lights candles at a vigil held in Moncton, N.B., on January 30, 2017, for the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

5 years after the Quebec City mosque shooting: How do children and teens cope with the trauma?

Five years ago, on Jan. 29, 2017, six men were killed by a gunman at the Grand Mosque of Québec City. The attack also injured eight people and left 17 children orphaned. There were also children on the second floor of the mosque during the shooting.

How do young victims like these persevere in the wake such an act? How do they adapt to shock and trauma?

Recent accounts from two young people offer some insight. Members and friends of the Muslim community in Québec City say they will never forget that night. They remain fearful something similar will happen again, but they say they can cope and carry on thanks to the support and solidarity of their community.

As a professor at Laval University’s School of Social Work and Criminology and a co-investigator of the Canadian Consortium on Child and Youth Trauma, I know that the best way to answer these questions is to speak with the young victims. The fifth anniversary of the shooting at the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre offers a chance to review the scientific literature on trauma and resilience.

What is trauma?

Trauma (also called an adverse experience) is emotional and physical response to a deeply distressing experience. Many people have difficulty overcoming it.

In my research, I am most interested in interpersonal trauma in children and adolescents. These traumas differ from other adverse experiences such as an accident or a natural disaster. They are unique in that the acts are committed (or omitted) by one or more individuals and are directed at another person, group or community. The shooting at the Grand Mosque can be characterized as an interpersonal trauma because the acts were directed towards a community.

Interpersonal trauma is associated with a myriad of consequences, especially when it occurs during sensitive periods of development, such as childhood and adolescence.

A brain more sensitive to experiences

Childhood and adolescence are considered to be important periods of development because brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change) is at its greatest. The brain develops and organizes itself rapidly until age 25.

This neuroplasticity makes the brain more sensitive to experiences, whether positive, such as learning, caring or relationships, or negative, such as interpersonal trauma. I am interested in the brain’s potential and vulnerability in children and adolescents who experience trauma.

This vulnerability influences the way interpersonal trauma can lead to multiple and complex consequences over a lifetime. Importantly, these go well beyond the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (reliving, avoidance, alterations in thinking, mood, arousal and reactivity). They include relationship and attachment problems, changes in identity and understanding of the world (such as a negative view of self and others), physical symptoms (stomach aches), difficulties in regulating emotions and behaviours (fear and anxiety, anger and impulsivity), as well as cognitive and learning problems (maintaining attention and learning new things in school).

While it is possible that such consequences may be observed in the young victims of the attack, it is important to recognize that there are significant individual differences among youth. Not everyone exposed to trauma will experience one or more of these consequences.

It is, among other things, these individual differences in the developmental trajectories of young people that interest me in my research: What makes it possible for a young person to develop and function after experiencing adversity? In short, what explains resilience?

Understanding the resilience process

Distressing events, such as the one at the Grand Mosque and the current COVID-19 pandemic, have put “resilience” on everyone’s lips. But what is it, exactly?

Resilience is generally defined as the dynamic process by which a person adapts to adversity. Understanding this process is necessary to prevent adjustment difficulties from emerging and being maintained in youth exposed to trauma.

We know that there are several factors and mechanisms associated with resilience. These can operate prior to adverse experiences to support resilience afterwards. These factors include good executive function of the brain (the ability to adapt to new situations, solve complex problems and regulate one’s emotions and behaviours), warm and caring interpersonal relationships (a parent figure, support network) or adequate coping strategies to deal with stress.

For example, a meta-analysis of 118 studies, totalling more than 100,000 participants, showed social support and regulation skills had protective effects in children who were victims of interpersonal violence.

Focusing on the strengths and resources of youth

Several other factors and mechanisms associated with resilience unfold after an adverse experience, and can support recovery and rehabilitation. These include, but are not limited to, learning and healing within caring and supportive interpersonal relationships, as well as psychosocial interventions.

Indeed, a large body of research shows that psychosocial interventions (such as cognitive-behavioural therapies or trauma-sensitive approaches) are associated with a decrease in post-traumatic symptoms and improved functioning in youth.

Read more: How to teach children about climate change, inspire hope and take action to change the future

Youth may even develop strengths or skills that are useful and adaptive in the face of adversity, such as being vigilant or able to divide their attention.

Together, the factors and mechanisms associated with resilience can become levers for change that help youth exposed to trauma. They can get them to focus on their resources and strengths, instead of on their challenges.

Healing and regaining a sense of security

Experiencing trauma in childhood or adolescence can have multiple, complex consequences, but not always — there is room for resilience and healing, especially when the young person has the protective effect of a parent figure or support network to help them regain a sense of safety.

Although this overview of the scientific literature on interpersonal trauma offers some insights into the impact of the shooting at the Grand Mosque in Québec City on young people, it cannot fully reflect their experience.

Nevertheless, it is with this trauma-sensitive lens that we can, collectively, recognize the potential consequences of interpersonal trauma for individuals, families, communities and society, but also the possibilities for resilience and healing.

This article was originally published in French

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