Open talk, open door: Helping kids, teens after a school shooting

Traumatic news, plus the stress of a pandemic and upcoming holidays, make this a critical time for young people and their parents and school staff

1:40 PM

Author | Kara Gavin

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Raising or educating kids in a pandemic with cases surging and the winter holidays approaching was already hard enough for Michigan parents and school staff.

And then the school shooting in Oxford, Michigan happened on Nov. 30, 2021 – the first one in the state in decades, and the first one to claim multiple young lives in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

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Now, parents and educators find themselves having to help children and teens process the news and navigate the trauma.

That may take days or weeks, but resources from local and national organizations can help, says Joanna Quigley, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's academic medical center.

"The biggest things that adults and our communities can do right now are to provide consistency and structure, to keep open lines of communication, and to find time each day to check in with one another," she said. "Make it clear you're available to answer questions about what happened, but make sure the child isn't overexposed to the media coverage of the event, or to social media posts about it."

Stepping away from news and posts on screens large and small is important for avoiding an effect called retraumatizing, which brings up the negative emotions that the initial shock of the event prompted.

She highly recommends giving older children and teens a resource from the National Child Trauma Network called "When Terrible Things Happen", which can help young people recognize the effects of major traumatic events and work to reduce them or avoid making them worse.

For parents, she recommends the disaster, violence and trauma resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Resources for Families site from the federal agency known as SAMHSA, as well as the resources developed for coping during COVID-19 by the U-M Department of Psychiatry.

Make it clear you're available to answer questions about what happened, but make sure the child isn't overexposed to the media coverage of the event, or to social media posts about it.
Joanna Quigley, M.D.

Routines, communication

The stress of a sudden major trauma on top of the underlying stress of living through a pandemic – especially at this time in Michigan – makes it especially important for families to spend time together, focus on healthy eating, sleeping and activity habits, and keep regular schedules.

School is an important part of that, giving kids a safe and familiar environment and keeping their minds and bodies active. With teachers, school counselors and school nurses already stretched thin by the stress of educating during a pandemic, this may be especially hard, but she recommends the tips contained in this resource from the NCTN.

Even though it may be tempting, kids, teens and adults shouldn't try to avoid thinking about or talking about what has happened or how they're feeling.

In fact, says Quigley, "Grownups should name the emotions they're feeling about this situation, especially with teens. Sometimes older children and teens aren't ready to name the emotions they're feeling or discuss them proactively, but if they hear that others are feeling them, they may."

This may take some time, she added. "Even if say they don't have questions or don't want to talk right now, let them know you have an 'open door policy' if they do want to talk, which could be a week or two from now, or may be prompted by more information coming out about the incident. It's important for them to know that the adults in their lives are available to them on an ongoing basis."

If you suspect or see a problem

For both children and adults, it's important to recognize when stress, feelings and emotions have started to interfere with normal relationships, ability to enjoy favorite activities, and regular daily tasks.

Today's children and teens are more equipped than previous generations to talk openly about their mental health. But some may still bottle it up for fear of being labeled or stigmatized.

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Teen and young adult years are peak times for the start of many mental health conditions, from depression to schizophrenia, Quigley notes.

Adults and peers who notice someone's behavior or personality has changed should speak up and try to guide them to help.

Anyone in Michigan, including students, who is concerned about a school safety issue should contact the OK2SAY Tip Line at 1-855-565-2729, text to 652729, or email to [email protected].

Parents with concerns about their own children should start by expressing their concern to their child's pediatrician, family physician or nurse practitioner, Quigley emphasized.

She and colleagues help these primary care providers care for the mental health needs of their young patients through the MC3 program.

For families that own guns, it's always important to follow safe practices to keep lethal means from being readily available to anyone during stressful times. The U-M Injury Prevention Center's resource for families is a good one to refer to, Quigley says. She emphasizes that gun violence is a public health issue, not strictly a mental health issue. 

If someone has urgent concerns that someone might hurt themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255 or through web chat on its site. Each county in Michigan also has a crisis line; they're listed here.

More Articles About: Children's Health Adolescent Psychiatric Treatment anxiety Depression Pediatric Psychiatric Treatment Mental Illness Covid-19 Mental Health
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