How to help your child deal with tragedy

Resources available in Mecosta, Osceola, Lake counties

Oxford High School sophomore Allison Hepp, 15, holds a candle as she bows her head in prayer during a vigil after the Oxford High School school shootings, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at LakePoint Community Church in Oxford, Mich.

Oxford High School sophomore Allison Hepp, 15, holds a candle as she bows her head in prayer during a vigil after the Oxford High School school shootings, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at LakePoint Community Church in Oxford, Mich.

Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP

In the wake of a tragedy, such as the recent shooting at Oxford High School, lies a trail of questions, uncertainty and fear that reaches far beyond the surrounding community, affecting students across the state and country. How can a parent help their child or teen process the unimaginable?

Depends on the age, said Ellen Plummer, a social worker who serves as the health care integration officer at West Michigan Community Mental Health.

“Discussing a violent situation with a child, such as the school shooting that occurred at Oxford High School, should be focused from a developmental stage perspective,” Plummer said. “How this event is discussed is dependent upon a child’s age and ability to understand and process their own thoughts and feelings regarding the incident. 

“Honesty is key when speaking to children about school shootings, but they don’t need to know all the details.”

Plummer said the first step is to ask the child what they already know, then what thoughts, feelings or questions they might have about it.

“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 these types of situations,” Plummer said.

And if the child doesn’t bring it up?

“Again, depending on the child’s age, it might provide a sense of reassurance and make a topic less scary to talk about if a parent does initiate a conversation with their child regarding a topic such as a school shooting,” Plummer said. “Ultimately though, a parent knows their child best and can determine if bringing up the shooting, even if their child hasn’t, is appropriate.”

A common reaction to a shooting is anxiety. “Could it happen in my school?”

“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,” Plummer said. “A parent can help their child cope with this anxiety by being supportive, available, caring, consistent and reassuring.”

How a tragedy affects a child, and how long it takes to recover, will vary depending on the child’s age and prior experiences, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).

“Expect that youth may respond in different ways, and be supportive and understanding of different reactions, even when you are having your own reactions and difficulties,” the organization suggests in its document “Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth after the Recent Shooting.”

NCTSN offers the following tips for parents.

For yourself:

  • Take care of yourself (e.g., drink plenty of water, eat regularly, and get enough sleep and exercise).
  • Seek support from relatives, friends and the community.
  • Avoid making any life-altering decisions.
  • Take time to rest and do things that you like to do. 

For your child:

  • Spend time talking with your children. Encourage them to express their concerns and feelings, but don’t push it. Let them know you are available when they are ready.
  • Promote your children’s self-care.
  • Help children feel safe by listening to their concerns.
  • Maintain expectations, routine and family rules (e.g., completing homework, chores, curfew). 
  • Address acting out behaviors. Talk about other ways of coping (distraction, exercise, writing in a journal, spending time with others).
  • Limit media exposure (e.g., internet, radio, television, social media).
  • Be patient.
  • Address feelings, such as fear and anger. Explain that changes in people’s attitudes are common and tend to be temporary after a tragedy like this. Find other ways to make them feel more in control and talk about their feelings.
  • Monitor changes in relationships. 
  • Get adults in your children’s life involved.
  • Seek professional help if difficulties persist.

“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,” Plummer said. “Anyone that needs help should reach out to their local community mental health office.”

RESOURCES

Community Mental Health of Central Michigan: www.cmhcm.org

  • Mecosta County: 500 South Third Ave., Big Rapids, 231-796-5825
  • Osceola County: 4473 220th Ave., Reed City, 231-832-2247
  • CMH of Central Michigan 24-Hour Crisis Line Number: (toll free) 1-800-317-0708

West Michigan Community Mental Health Services: www.wmcmhs.org

  • Lake County: 1090 N. Michigan Ave., Baldwin, 231-745-4659
  • West Michigan CMH 24-Hour Crisis Line Number: (toll free) 1-800-992-2061

For more information on how to help your child, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Networks at nctsn.org