How to speak with your children after a school shooting

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The day-to-day tasks of parenting can be challenging enough. But after the Oxford High School shooting of Nov. 30, 2021, that task has become more difficult. But for parents grappling to find the right way to handle it, they need to realize they are not alone.  

Dr. Pam McCaskill addressed the concerns of all parents, as well as teachers and administrators, in a conversation with the community of New Morning School in Plymouth, MI.

She outlined methods for discussion and signs of different possible concerns with school-aged children.

Communication with children after a tragedy

It’s good to encourage conversation with your children, making them comfortable to speak up or to ask questions. There will be different questions and conversations, depending upon age, as the developmental needs of a 5-year-old child is different than that of a 16-year-old. 

It’s fine to ask or field questions from your kids, and go where the conversation takes you.  Sometimes, the children have a lot on their mind.  Other times, they are simply processing it or don’t feel comfortable speaking. That is natural.

“Children, just like us adults, may feel a little out of control right now, “ McCaskill said. “So respect that. ‘Now might not be the time, but know I’ll be here for you if you want to talk about it’.”

It’s also important to tell your child if they do not wish to hold a conversation about a tragedy like this, there are other trusted adults (such as family members, teachers, clergy) upon whom they can lean. Also, if a child is too young to realize what has happened, there is no need to bring up the subject.

Conversation can take place in many forms – find what is most comfortable. If it is through a formal sit-down discussion or even text messaging, using the best communication method takes trial and error. Be adaptive to what works best.

Be honest answering questions about a school shooting

There is no need to sugarcoat it, so provide honest answers to honest questions.  But be sure to stay on point and not overtalk a subject.

“Follow their lead. Give the answer to the question they are asking…and zero in on the honest answer to the question,” said McCaskill, noting if a child is looking for a specific answer, provide it when you can without overloading them with information they might not need. “Honesty, always. And sometimes, the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

It’s important to keep the focus on the child’s experience and feelings rather than the event itself. “Your child may have different feelings or experience than you do,” she said.

Don’t let social media, news coverage from a tragedy consume you

We live in an information-ready society, which can be a blessing and a curse.  So while it is possible to quickly find out about any given event, it’s just as possible to get in the weeds to the point of getting overloaded by information and images.

McCaskill recommends limiting the amount of exposure to TV and social media, if possible.

“I personally need to take a break from it every few days because I get overwhelmed, and I’m a  mental health professional,” she said. “There’s no need to have the news on constantly at home. You’re the filter for that.”  

Even if you are seeking more information about an event, remember that when you watch or listen to news reports, young eyes and ears may be nearby, absorbing the details in a different manner than you. Or perhaps you continue to find more information through social media and wrap much of your conversation around what you see. Ask yourself if it is really necessary to stay so fixated on one subject.

In fact, it’s a good idea to speak with teens about the effect of social media on mental health. Sometimes, it pays to take a break from social media. Doing this does not affect your safety or the safety of your children and can be a much-needed respite, tragedy or not.

Manage your own anxiety, stress after a tragedy

It’s a pretty simple concept, when you think about it: How can you protect your children if you do not protect yourself? Just like you do not want to see your children hurting, you have to be sure you are your best self, too.

“You need to take care of yourself.  If you don’t know what to do, stop and take some self-care for yourself,” McCaskill said. It’s not at all selfish to look out for yourself in times of crisis, as everyone can allow themselves even a little bit of time to redirect their focus and energies elsewhere. 

“It’s good to take care of yourself so you can be there for your children.”

What to do if your child shows signs of violent behavior

It’s always good to be in tune with what is going on with your children, even when times seem normal. Sometimes, kids may express violent feelings or tendencies – and it’s when moments like those arise that the importance of having open lines of communications in place is important.

Signs to watch for include comments of harm to others or self-harm. Yes, there are times children will express off-the-cuff feelings they do not really mean. Making honest assessments of your child is important in recognizing the seriousness of any possible situation.

If these behaviors (or if something just seems a bit off) after two weeks or longer, parents need to take steps toward finding professional help.

“It’s a sign whatever you are doing may need further intervention,” McCaskill said. “My advice is to trust your parental intuition. If something seems off, speak up.

“Don’t do this alone. If you’re worried about your child, reach out and get help. There are trained mental health professionals that can help you.” 

Assessing the health of a child is not a one-and-done effort. Getting an accurate gauge on your child’s well-being comes through having quality interactions with them. Parents need to take an interest in their child’s daily world.

“Maintain as much of a connection with children as possible. Focus on time and quality of relations as best as possible,” she said. “It’s not the quantity of time, it’s the quality of time. I’d rather see five minutes of time of focus with your children than five hours of distracted time.”

It will be easier to broach difficult subjects (such as getting mental health counseling) if a good relationship is in place. McCaskill added that parents should embrace outside help to navigate serious challenges, instead of struggling to find the right answers from within.

“If you’re concerned, speak up,” she said. “This is not a one-on-one relationship thing. Speak up.”

Reassure children they are safe after the Oxford school shooting

It is true many parents, students and school personnel are on edge after events like the Oxford school shooting or other violent events. However, it should not be a given that because an event happens in one place, it will happen in another.

“The spotlight is on us and on our schools. Everyone is aware and looking,” McCaskill said.  While noting violent school incidents at places like Oxford, Sandy Hook and Columbine are devastating, “This has been happening for some time. Tragic events happen.  

“We are at no more risk now than we were prior to this event.”  

You may not need to even bring up the subject with young children, including preschoolers. It’s more than they can developmentally handle. If they see you responding with sadness toward any event, you can keep your response simple by telling them you are dealing with some adult issues, but everyone is safe and fine. 

Children may feel like they cannot handle the stress of going back to school.  There are even parents who do not want their children to go back, hoping everyone will feel more normal the next day. That is an unhealthy approach. Being proactive is better than being reactive.

“If you keep them home, the anxiety continues to grow,” McCaskill said. “And it will be harder to get them back to school.”

Most school settings are ideal for providing a safe environment for their children, both physically and emotionally.

“I am thankful that our school is small and everyone knows most of the children and adults at school. This helps keep us safe,” said Elaine Kennedy, Head of School for New Morning School. 

“Of paramount importance, our kids feel emotionally safe. They are given work to do at their academic levels and they learn to trust the teacher. The teacher is like a coach, helping each child to succeed.”

How to help your child manage life after a tragic event

Much can change after a school shooting or any other tragic event. But eventually, life does return to a semblance of normalcy.  And normalcy is nurtured by routine and structure. 

“Yes, there’s a lot of emotion,” McCaskill said. “But routines help us and they help our students.  All of that doesn’t have to go awry.”

It is also ideal to focus on the positive and emphasize hope rather than have circular thoughts about events. Don’t focus on the what-ifs; rather, look for the positive.

“I hear a lot of what-ifs, but I tell my patients, but what if it doesn’t? What if nothing bad happens today?” McCaskill said. “It’s more likely nothing will happen.”

An emphasis on hope helps bring about normalcy, as does practicing gratitude and encouraging kindness. Take the approach of being a good friend to others and helping children to find ways of being kind.

As timing would have it, New Morning School is currently having its elementary classroom celebrate its ‘12 Days of Kindness.’ This consists of acts large and small, such as making Christmas cards for nursing home residents, bookmarks for classmates and sharing candy canes with teachers.

“Every day, we have something different…Something for them to really focus on doing some good,” elementary teacher Christine Jansen said. “I think it’s a good time to have them do something nice for each other and for their whole community.”

Purposely engaging in acts of kindness is one of those ways of balancing  things back out.

“Children are watching us.” McCaskill said. “If you make kindness part of your routine, they are more likely to follow it.”

How you can prevent a school shooting or deal with the aftermath

If there is not a counselor at school, which would be an ideal first step, contact a school administrator to express your concerns about the mental well-being of your child or another child.  You may also refer to your state for local resources; in Michigan, you can go to or check OK2SAY. 

For help with managing the stress of any tragic event, including a school shooting, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990. It will connect you with a trained counselor.