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How to help your kids process school shootings: 'They’re looking to parents for cues'

'It may actually interfere with their everyday functioning,' child psychologist says
School Shooting Michigan
Posted at 6:06 PM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 21:19:37-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- As reports of another mass shooting at a school top headlines across the United States, community activists and mental health professionals want parents to know that children in Central Virginia may be impacted by the tragedy.

"How are the children? That should be our first response in every situation," said Valerie Slater, executive director of Rise for Youth. The non-profit organization pushes for resources and opportunities for young people so they can thrive and succeed.

After learning that four students were killed and several others were hurt in a shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan Tuesday, Slater immediately checked in with the kids of her organization.

“We went to visit them at schools, we went to check up on them if they were at work,” Slater said. "And then for those that we couldn't get into physical contact with, we gave them calls so that they were able to share what they were feeling."

She said many of them expressed feelings of sadness, despite the tragedy taking place hundreds of miles away.

“They were sad to know that some of their peers lost their lives," Slater said. "And with children, it isn't, ‘That's my neighbor, they live next door, or they go to my school. It's another kid just like me.’”

ValerieSlater.jpeg
Valerie Slater

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Child psychologist, Dr. Sandra Henderson, said the mass shooting will affect a subset of adolescents' mental health, particularly teenagers in high school with access to social media and news outlets.

"It may actually interfere with their everyday functioning," Henderson said.

She explained some children may hyperfocus on the negativity which is why it's important for parents to pay attention to their behavior.

“Parents need to limit their adolescents’ use of social media," Henderson said. “When they consume social media, they can be re-traumatized by the event, especially with graphic images.”

She encouraged parents to have conversations with their children and model calmness as many kids have a tendency to mirror the way their parents respond to certain situations.

“They’re looking to parents for cues on, is this OK? Am I OK? Are we OK," she said.

Dr. Sandra Henderson
Dr. Sandra Henderson

Here are some key points to keep in mind when initiating a conversation with children about the school shooting:

  • Ask them straight forward what their concerns are. Henderson said most children will be direct with their answers.
  • Don't add to the conversation with your own worries. Just work around the topics the children are bringing up.
  • Reassure children that while school shootings do happen, they are rare.

Dr. Henderson said that could sound like: “Yes, you are safe in this house, yes, you are safe in this family, and yes, you are safe in your school community.”

For those who remain impacted long-term by the event, Henderson and Slater agreed that anti-violence activism can provide a productive outlet to channel those concerns.

“We are creating the opportunity for young people to express themselves in amazing ways to take charge of their lives, take charge of their communities and bring about the positive changes that they want to see," Slater said.

Slater said anyone interested in getting involved with Rise for Youth should visit their website to learn about ways to volunteer or donate.

"Let them know that you support them," Slater said. "There is nothing better that can be done in your heart or in the heart of a child, than knowing that someone cares."

Henderson said if a child continues to have trouble processing the school shooting, parents should seek out professional help.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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