What adults need to know, and how they can help after shootings like Oxford High School from the Detroit Free Press
December 1, 2021
By Phoebe Wall Howard
It is essential, after a school shooting, that parents and other adults control their emotions around their children to restore a feeling of calm and safety and limit anxiety, according to medical experts interviewed by the Free Press.
“In general, children, especially younger ones, do not have a good ability of threat detection or appraising the level of the danger. The most important thing is to control our own fear or negative emotions around kids — all kids,” said Dr. Arash Javanbakht, a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research clinic at Wayne State University. “Parents must show they’re in control. For parents to create an atmosphere of safety is very important.”
Watching the news, which may include graphic video, should be avoided at home when children are in the vicinity as it can fuel anxiety, he and other psychiatrists said. Repeated exposure, especially for younger children, might lead to them believing the events are recurring.
“Do not deny kids’ fears or thoughts or questions. Be open to the kids. Listen to them, see what are their concerns and address those concerns. Remind them they are safe at home, and that there are many adults including parents, teachers and police, working every day to keep them safe,” said Javanbakht, an expert on psychiatry surrounding shootings.
Basic facts can calm fears and alleviate a sense of chaos, and create a sense of control, medical experts said.
‘No right or wrong way’
Dr. Zakia Alavi, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development at Michigan State University who is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry, said she had been talking with parents all afternoon Tuesday about how to handle the Oxford High School shooting situation as events unfolded.
“The first thing to know is, there is no right or wrong way to address this. Any talk is better than no talk in terms of allowing children to express themselves and their concerns,” Alavi said.
She suggested organizing advice into three major categories:
- Providing reassurance regarding safety.
- Regulating parents’ expression of angst or fear.
- Being proactive — things you can do rather than just worry.
Preteens and younger children generally see events as related to them, because of them or for them, Alavi said. Teenagers generally want to know how events will affect them and what could have been done differently.
Parents must be aware of their own anxiety and regulate that emotion in front of children because it goes a long way toward a feeling that everything will be OK, Alavi said.
“We want kids to feel the adults in their lives can keep them safe. There is nothing more terrifying for kids than thinking that their family is not in control,” she said. “Also, limit the consumption of social media and TV. Repeated coverage can be re-traumatizing.”
Perhaps key to moving forward may be family discussion about becoming active in creating student or parent or community support groups. Channeling energy can be productive for young adults and restore faith in control and safety, psychiatrists said.
“You want to empower children to be agents of change,” Alavi said. “It sounds like a tall order. It’s not asking them to run for political office. It’s saying, ‘You’re not powerless. You do have power.’ It goes a long way toward mitigating a sense of hopelessness and helplessness when there’s a tragedy like this.”
Symptoms of trauma
After traumatic events, parents may notice changes in the behavior of students at home.
“They may feel a wide range of feelings and that’s normal. They may find themselves struggling now and in the days to come with intense feelings — fear, depression, anxiety, anger,” said Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and author of “Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before they Strike.”
“An incident like this has a big impact on us as people,” he said. “For some, they may seem more agitated, irritated, may act out more. They may show more of a temper or have trouble sleeping. Kids may be more quiet or withdrawn. You may see crying or an unwillingness to even go back to school or participate in normal activities. Or they may seek more support.”
Symptoms of anxiety may present as loss of appetite or increased appetite, in addition to sleep disruption.
Children should be encouraged to talk with anyone who provides a feeling of safety, whether it’s adults at home, teachers, coaches, counselors — connection is essential.
“You cannot always see the attack coming, especially when you talk about juvenile school shooters,” said Langman, who is also a researcher with the National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. Secret Service.
“What’s so heartbreaking in studying these cases over the years is how many people knew something and didn’t take action,” he said. “It’s so important that people know there are typically warning signs and if they’re reported, authorities can intervene effectively. You can prevent these incidents. I encourage students, faculty, parents and anyone who comes across a warning sign to take action and report it to the school.”
Early news reports confirmed that some students who attended Oxford High School did, in fact, stay home on Tuesday because they felt uneasy. Parents interviewed by the news media confirmed concerns about rumors involving potential violence.
‘Little kids concerned’
Stephanie Hartwell, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State, is a medical sociologist who has researched gun violence. On Tuesday, her daughter texted news of the shooting to her.
“My kids were 8 and 5 when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. And that was first graders. I was completely traumatized. It changes your perception of how safe the world is. So you start to question everything,” Hartwell said.
Read, “What adults need to know, and how they can help after shootings like Oxford High School” from the Detroit Free Press