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Mental Health Matters: Talking to children about the Oxford School shooting

December 7, 2021 | By lori3s@wmcmhs.org

As the nation and Michiganders continue to process the tragic events that happened at Oxford High School in southeast Michigan, it’s important to recognize that children may need help feeling safe as they learn about the shooting.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), high profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk. It’s important that parents and school personnel talk to children to help them feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security.

Ellen Plummer, LMSW, from West Michigan Community Mental Health says parents should explain what happened in Oxford in an age-appropriate way.

“Discussing a violent situation with a child such as the school shooting that occurred at Oxford School should be focused from a developmental stage perspective,” Plummer said. “Honesty is key when speaking to children about school shootings, but they don’t need to know all of the details. One of the first steps a parent can take is to inquire as to what the child already knows about the indicated and what feelings, thoughts, and questions the child has. As a parent, focusing on the child’s experience and feelings rather than the details of the event itself is often more effective in helping a child process the situation.”

NASP also says it’s important to reassure children that they are safe. Parent and teachers should emphasize that schools are a very safe place. School districts work closely with public safety officials to ensure students are in a safe environment. NASP also suggests parents need to explain to children that although there is no absolute guarantee something bad will never happen, it’s important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will happen.

It’s also important to teach children that we all play a role in school safety. Students should be observant and let an adult know if they see or hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable, nervous or scared. Explain that there is a difference between tattling, gossiping and reporting facts to a trusted adult.

NASP also recommends limiting television and social media viewing of the events. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, especially in young children. NASP reminds adults to be aware of whether the television is on in a common area and be mindful of the conversations adults are having with children around.

As children process the tragic events, parents should watch for signs of anxiety in their children.

“Some signs of increased anxiety include excessive worrying, nightmares, not wanting to go to school, headaches or stomach aches, changes in school performance, or an increase in defiant or irritable behavior,” said Plummer. “A parent can help their child cope with anxiety by being supporting, available, caring, consistent and reassuring.”

If a parent feels that their child is having ongoing struggles and increasing difficulty with anxiety related to the school shooting incident, they should reach out for professional help. West Michigan Community Mental Health is available 24/7 if parents need advice or assistance by calling 1-800-992-2061.

 

Alan Neushwander is the director of public relations and customer service at West Michigan Community Mental Health. He may be reached by calling (231) 843-5440 or email alann@wmcmhs.org.