We spoke with an expert on traumatic stress about how Michigan parents should handle the aftermath of the Oxford shooting. These are the main takeaways.
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich.—Within her circle, Dr. Sarah Domoff has been having the same adult-table conversations as every other Michigan family who’s been left devastated, flustered, and angry by the Oxford school shooting.
“How can we prevent this from happening again? What were the warning signs? What was known?” Domoff, a therapist, said
But in her work as a clinical psychologist, where she’s seen parents about the fallout, Domoff’s focus has narrowed in on how best to respond to the events for those who have been severely emotionally impacted—especially, children.
For those who feel like they’re spinning right now, that’s a normal, fine, and understandable response, Domoff said.
The Oxford school shooting was far from the only mass shooting in US schools; in 2021, there have been nine active-shooter situations at schools in the US, killing 39 people, according to the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Many Michigan families, however, were touched more by Oxford because it signaled a proximate threat, one that could happen anytime and anywhere. Many also knew people who were impacted.
At home, parents have put on a brave face for their kids, many of whom are feeling scared and some of whom are reluctant to step foot inside school doors. But meanwhile, parents have been coming to terms with the gravity of the situation themselves.
How parents choose to respond to the shooting can mean a lot to their children, and it can also do a lot for their own mental health, Domoff said.
Domoff has made her career off helping children cope with traumatic stress. She was first drawn to the role growing up in New Milford, Connecticut, a 20-minute drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a shooter killed 26 people in 2012. Domoff’s mother was a teacher at a nearby school.
Now, Domoff works as a clinical psychologist and an associate professor specializing in child psychology at Central Michigan University. She’s also a board member of the Michigan Psychological Association. Much of her research has centered on how screen time impacts children.
Speaking with The ‘Gander, Domoff wanted to share tips for parents that she’s learned will help children—and parents —get through the aftermath of the Oxford shooting.
Open a dialogue
Ignoring the horrible circumstances won’t make them go away, Domoff said.
“With our digital age, many children are already aware of information regarding the recent shooting—some of it accurate, some of it inaccurate,” Domoff said.
Parents should broach the sensitive topic with their children, asking age-appropriate questions and correcting any misconceptions.
With elementary-aged children, that might start with asking what they’ve heard and how that makes them feel to label their emotions. If a child says they’re “scared,” parents should be vulnerable and express what they’re feeling as well.
With high school students, it’s important to go back and forth and engage in a nuanced discussion on why and how this happened.
Parents should open themself up for questions and not use blanket statements like “this would never happen here,” Domoff said. Instead, ask more questions. With high school students, a good one is: “What can we do?” That will help spur action, leading to productive efforts in the community and staving off feelings of helplessness.
“Encourage your child to ask questions,” Domoff said. “And you as a parent or caregiver, answer those questions directly. They may not want to talk right away about this content.”
Specifically for children who are having trouble falling asleep, locate their feelings and try to empathize. If they express they’re feeling worried or anxious, express that many adults—maybe even you—are feeling the exact same way. Explain then what you do when you feel the same.
“There are certain truths and certain circumstances that we can’t explain away,” Domoff said.
The Oxford school shooting isn’t the first one to ever hit Michigan. But to some, it will feel like it.
The endless news cycle, with regular social media posts and top-of-the-hour updates, can elicit feelings of dread and worry all the more. Watch out for information overload from screens of all kinds.
Now is the time to reflect on what your relationship with social media is, Domoff said. No doubt, it’s a useful tool and a valuable information-sharer, but if it’s not actively enriching your life or making you happier, it’s time to dial back.
Domoff noted that for parents, they shouldn’t rush to strip phones away altogether; for children, digital connection is a primary channel for meaningful conversations and connection.
“This is their world, but you can make choices about who you follow, what you read, when you shut it off,” Domoff said.
It’s like dessert, Domoff said. A little bit is great, maybe even healthy for your mental peace. Too much, however, isn’t going to be good for you in the long run.
The same goes for the nightly news. Domoff advised parents to stay informed, but not keep the news on as a home soundtrack. Even if kids aren’t watching, they still might hear all the latest. Especially around younger children—but again, for adults and teens too—it’s best to cut away from the stream an hour or two before bed.
“Even if they’re not watching it, they’re hearing it,” Domoff said.
Seek out resources
Finally, if your child is really struggling to the point where they can’t function in normal settings, reach out for help. The Michigan Psychological Association, of which Domoff is a board member, will direct you to resources and local therapists in your area.
“Unfortunately, because school shootings are so common, there’s a whole bunch of resources,” Domoff said.
In the meantime, visit these links for more information on what you should be doing at home:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Guidelines
- NCTSN: Talking to Children About the Recent Shooting
- SAMHSA Coping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters
- MDHHS Mental Health Resources