How should you talk with kids about a school shooting?

By: - December 7, 2021 4:11 pm

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In the wake of the school shooting at Oxford High School last week, parents and teachers across the state and country are grappling with how to talk about tragedies like this with young kids and teenagers.

Oxford High School, Dec. 3, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

“The biggest job of the parents will be to listen,” said Sandra Graham-Bermann, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “[A school shooting] is a very, very rare event, but it gets so much attention. It frightens everybody, and the kids get very anxious about it. Making time to talk, monitoring how your child is doing and then keeping up a similar routine is important.”

The town of Oxford was rocked last week after Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old accused of shooting and killing four students: Hana St. Juliana, 14; Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; and Justin Shilling, 17, as well as injured several others and a teacher. 

But the tragedy wasn’t contained to that Southeast Michigan town. And parents and teachers everywhere are grappling with how to explain to young children and teenagers what happened and why. 

This is going to look different for every child based on their age, their previous traumas and where they are developmentally, experts say. 

“A 7-year-old is going to have a more concrete view of things. They will want to understand why this happened, or who was there or who didn’t show up. They will have very concrete questions about the situation before it might register with them that there’s a bigger emotional toll,” said Joanna Quigley, University of Michigan Associate Medical Director for Child and  Adolescent Services and Ambulatory Psychiatry.  

“For, say, 17-year-olds, I think they absolutely can have those same fears, but their engagement with the world is more complex and they will have a relatability to events like this that includes their peers. They’re more engaged on social media. They hear about these events before some of the adults in their life too. And there’s a constant exchange of narratives about the lives of those affected that will really hit home with them in ways that are very powerful emotionally.”

School safety and mental health resources:

In Oakland County, where Oxford is located, the local health department is offering free mental health services, including one-on-one sessions with licensed mental health professionals. 

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offers the Michigan Crisis and Access Line (MiCAL). Residents can call or text 844-44-MICAL (844-446-4225) for free behavioral health crisis triage, support, resource information and referral to local services. 

Anyone in Michigan can report tips confidentially on criminal activities or potential harm directed at students, school employees or schools through OK2Say. Tips can be submitted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

To learn about speaking to your children about safety, visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org.

To learn about speaking to your children about violence, visit NaspOnline.org.

If you or a loved one is concerned about suicide, call 800-273-8255 or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.

To help your children manage distress after a shooting, visit Apa.org. 

For some kids with previous traumas around gun violence, it can be very triggering for them to hear or see coverage around these kinds of situations, experts said. 

One way to address this is to limit graphic content, particularly for younger kids, Quigley said, but it’s also important to be honest with them about what is on the news and social media and engage with them when they have questions. 

“There’s a component of trying to limit it. But also if it’s on the TV or you notice them watching something on their device, it’s important that you stop and watch it with them and help give feedback on what they are seeing and maybe ask questions about how they feel after they see that clip,” Quigley said. 

Children, of course, aren’t the only ones who are processing this trauma, but parents and teachers are dealing with similar fears and concerns. 

“Parents obviously don’t want to burden their kids with more fear and worry based on what they are experiencing, yet I also think it’s important for parents to name their own feelings to some degree,” Quigley said. 

Being honest about your own experience can be helpful for children, especially when followed up with explaining your own healthy coping mechanisms. 

There are warning signs that a child is in distress that parents should be monitoring, Quigley said. 

Warning signs could include:

  •  A change in mood (seeming more withdrawn, worried, sador more irritable)
  • A change in behavior (acting out more, being more physical, seeming more angry or more easily frustrated)
  • A change in physical health (headaches, stomachaches or trouble sleeping or staying asleep)

Graham-Bermann said parents should still be mindful of how much they share with their children. 

“You are not the child’s friend. You are the child’s parent, and you have a job to do. And one of your jobs is to protect your child. And even if you really, really want to talk about things, have somebody to share information with,”  Graham-Bermann said. 

Parents should also have outlets to talk about the distress through therapy, talking with friends or family members, so as they don’t rely on oversharing with children. 

“Don’t reveal to your children how scared that you are or talk too much about the gory details or any other elements of the case that really are not appropriate for kids,” she said. “Your job as a parent is to help your child adjust, to provide information and to provide safety and structure.”

Since the shooting, there have been many more resources for families to help cope with the stress. 

Community vigils and support groups, as well as maintaining regular social routines for children and teenagers, is an important part of the coping process. 

Though this is long overdue, increasing the number of counselors in schools is a preventative measure that school districts and state leaders should prioritize, Graham-Bermann said. 

“Schools really need to have a lot more mental health counseling available. I know school psychologists are slammed and are absolutely overwhelmed, particularly when it gets to the high school level, because there the issues are much bigger,” Graham-Bermann said. “I think we don’t have enough mental healthcare in Michigan by a longshot. A waiting list for an evaluation can be up to a year. This is not OK.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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