How to Handle Tragedy on Your Child's College Campus

The Michigan State University shooting struck fear into the hearts of parents across the country. While mass college shootings are rare, there are ways to navigate these tragedies with your student.

People leave flowers, mourn and pray at a makeshift memorial at "The Rock" on the campus of Michigan State University

Scott Olson / Getty images

When the news broke of the mass shooting on Michigan State University’s (MSU) campus, it sent a ripple of fear and uncertainty across the nation—particularly among parents and caregivers with college-age or soon-to-be college-age kids. While mass shootings on college campuses are considered rare, the impact of what happened at MSU is profound, especially for those who are miles and miles from their loved ones.

“When a tragedy occurs on a college campus, it is a completely normal reaction for parents to be concerned, even if their child is not directly involved,” says Laura Erickson-Schroth, M.D., MA, the chief medical officer for The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicide. “Exposure to community violence, including school shootings, can be traumatic for all students.”

Whether you have a student at MSU or another college, understanding how to help them navigate a traumatic event like this is essential. Knowing what to say and do—even (and perhaps especially) if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away—can help your student begin to process their feelings and, more importantly, get the help they need.

How to Navigate Talking About The Tragedy

Anytime a tragedy occurs, it is important that your child knows you are available to support them, says Dr. Erickson-Schroth. Trauma of any type can make it hard to go about daily life and can have a very real impact on mental health.

“Parents should know that it often takes time for young people to feel and process their emotions and that their emotions may evolve over time,” Dr. Erickson-Schroth adds. “It can often be helpful to start by encouraging them to take care of the basic things like eating and sleeping.” 

Remember, young people can have a wide range of emotions following a traumatic experience, and there is not one “right way” to react, she says. Some will quickly open up, while others may seem more cut off from the events—at least at first.

“If they do not seem terribly impacted or do not want to engage more than usual, it is not a negative reflection on your relationship,” explains Jennifer Weber, Psy.D., the director of behavioral health at PM Pediatric Care. 

Be there for your child, but be mindful of how often you are reaching out. Avoid overwhelming them by consistently touching base without overdoing it, Dr. Weber suggests.

“Keep in mind your normal cadence of interacting with them since they moved onto campus,” she adds. “A slight increase is completely understandable, but if you are someone who typically checks in one to two times a week, five phone calls a day may be just too much.”

You also should refrain from asking too many questions or requesting extreme levels of detail. Doing so may heighten your child’s anxiety, she says. 

How to Be There For Your Child—Even if You Are Miles Away

If you are like most parents, you want to know what to do to make the situation better or less painful for your student. While you may not be able to take away their pain, you can be a source of wisdom and comfort.

Keep lines of communication open

The single most important thing you can do for your child is let them know you are there for them, you are available and willing to be their sounding board.

“They need a safe space to share their feelings about what happened or what they are thinking and feeling,” says Kristin Rhinehart, MSW, LISW-S, a licensed independent social worker with InnovaTel Telepsychiatry and founder of Changing Minds. “Use FaceTime, where you can see your child, and schedule check-in times. Also, don’t be afraid to visit and check on them if you are concerned.” 

Remind them of the resources available

Educate yourself about what resources the college or university has available. Many times, following a tragedy, schools will offer grief counseling, support groups, and other types of mental health services. Remind your student of the resources they have available, and encourage them to utilize what the campus is offering.

Encourage them to maintain their routines

Keeping up with their routines can bring a sense of peace during stressful times, Rhinehart says. Encourage your student to get up at the same time and to go do the things they normally do. It’s also important that they know it is OK not to focus all their time and energy on the tragedy.

Promote self-care

Encourage them to make healthy choices for self-care, Rhinehart says. This may mean different things for different kids. For some, it may mean getting to bed consistently, eating nutritious meals, and exercising. For others it might mean limiting alcohol consumption, spending time doing things they enjoy, or taking a mental health day

“Let them know that they will not be letting you down if they can’t immediately return to all of their activities and schoolwork,” Dr. Erickson-Schroth adds.

Advise them to limit media consumption

Too much information, or the wrong kind of information, can fuel anxiety and fear. For this reason, you may want to suggest they limit their media exposure, suggests Dr. Erickson-Schroth.

“This doesn’t mean never checking their news feeds,” she says. “But it does mean thinking proactively about what they are hoping to gain from news and deciding for themselves how much exposure they want.” 

Utilize connections with nearby family and friends

Sometimes it is helpful for students to know they have a network of family and friends nearby if they need it. If you happen to have these resources near your student’s campus, make use of them. 

“Ask your child’s permission to reach out on their behalf or offer their contact information as a potential resource,” Dr. Weber says. “A home-cooked meal and a night’s sleep in a home may be therapeutic for them and give you some peace of mind too.”

Empower them to ask for help

Keep in mind, everyone processes tragedy differently. So, while in the beginning, it may seem like your child is handling everything really well, this does not mean that they won’t develop fears, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress syndrome later on.

Be sure they know there is nothing wrong with asking for help whenever they need it—whether it's for mental health or academic help. Even if they need help several months later, make sure they know asking for help is not a sign of weakness. 

How to Manage Your Own Stress and Anxiety

It is normal to wrestle with all kinds of emotions in the aftermath of a school shooting. Whether it's at your child’s university, a neighboring community, or several states away, it can have a profound impact on you.

“We can have secondary trauma based on what we believe our kids are experiencing,” Rhinehart says. “Get the facts from accurate sources. You also need to reach out to your own support system.”

While your priority is likely your child, it’s also important for you to take care of yourself, she adds. You will be of little help to them if you haven't been addressing your own thoughts and emotions and getting the support you need.

“You can, and should, let your children know you are also experiencing emotions related to the tragedy,” says Dr. Erickson-Schroth. “It’s important they see you modeling that everyone has feelings—including their parents—and we all have coping skills we use to get through difficult times. But, be sure to pay attention to whether your emotions could be overwhelming or take away from their ability to express their own.”

Should You Pick Your Child Up From School?

It is a natural reaction to want to drive to campus and bring your child home after a tragedy occurs. But Rhinehart suggests taking a moment to determine where your student is mentally and emotionally and what they want. 

“You can offer to pick them up,” she says. “But if they say no, it is important to support their decision. Ask yourself if your desire to get them is based on your own emotions or on your college student’s desires. It is important to bring yourself in check first.” 

Rhinehart also suggests having faith in your relationship with your child and trusting the skills you equipped them with will enable them to make good choices. Also, reframe the situation and look at it as a teachable moment. There will be many more situations in life that create stress. Use this opportunity to learn and grow together, she says.

“[Remember], they are attempting to ‘adult’ for the first time and independence is indeed the goal of their overall experience in college,” Dr. Weber adds. “[Remind yourself] you have already done the bulk of the work to raise them to be kind, smart, and savvy young adults.”

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