As adults try to comprehend the horrors of the July 4 parade shooting in Highland Park, many have been left with a disturbing task: Talking about the tragedy with their children. .
In the past, Chicago area parents may have been able to avoid difficult conversations with their young children about mass shootings in other areas of the county. But the Highland Park shooting has made that nearly impossible for many parents, as their children wonder why parades and fireworks were suddenly canceled Monday. In the north suburbs, the cancellations continued into Tuesday, with some day camps and park districts taking a pause.
“If you’re living in northern Illinois, everyone is going to be talking about this, and if a child is older than a toddler, they’re going to have some level of exposure to it,” said Gene Liebler, executive director of behavioral health and community at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Dafna Lender, a child and family therapist in Evanston, said she’s been fielding calls from clients since the shooting that killed six people and wounded dozens of others Monday.
“One of the most important things is absolutely truthful disclosures, not trying to hide the reality because kids feel it,” Lender said. “If you give a contrary message to what they’re feeling that creates a dissonance inside, and that’s more disturbing than anything that happened in the outside world.”
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Parents should start conversations with their children by asking what they know, advises the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Not talking about it can make the situation seem scarier in children’s minds or make them think parents don’t know what happened, according to the network. Parents can ask open-ended questions, Liebler said.
“You’ve got to have the facts and be able to talk about them reasonably,” Liebler said.
It’s important for parents to actively listen to their children, so they understand what their children are really asking when they ask questions about recent events, said Dr. John Walkup, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
A child asking why camp was canceled, for example, may be more concerned about missing their friends at camp than about what happened in Highland Park, he said.
“Kids process all of this stuff in very different ways, and when they ask a question, they usually aren’t asking a question, they’re making a statement,” he said. Responding to a question about why camp was canceled with a detailed recounting of the shooting in Highland Park may not actually be an appropriate way to answer the child, he said.
A parent may want to respond by asking the child, “What do you think about camp being canceled?” to better understand the child’s concerns, he said.
“It’s most important for parents to understand what their kids are saying, not getting preoccupied with how to say something to their kid,” Walkup said.
Parents should also consider a child’s developmental level and personality when deciding how to respond to questions, Liebler said. Anxious children, for example, will likely need more reassurance that they and their families are not in imminent danger, he said.
With younger children, parents should be truthful but keep their answers short and to the point, Lender said. They can also provide reassurance that their families are safe and police have caught the suspect.
Parents shouldn’t be alarmed if their younger children incorporate the shooting into their games of pretend or drawings, Lender said. It’s a healthy way for children to work through the situation, especially if their games include rescuers or helpers, and as long as they don’t focus excessively on death or violence, she said.
Parents should also limit media exposure in the home, advises the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“When you’re home and have the news on they may be doing something else, but they’re listening intently to it,” Liebler said.
Of course, that may be more difficult for parents of teens, who often have their own smartphones.
“For older kids, they’re going to have a lot more streams of information coming at them,” Liebler said. “Some could be misinformation or disinformation. You want to make sure you have good fact-based responses to share with them.”
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When speaking with teens, parents should keep their conversations low-key, ask questions about their teens’ thoughts and avoid lecturing, Lender said.
Parents also shouldn’t be afraid to seek help, if they think their children are having a hard time coping with the shooting, Liebler said.
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If parents are worried about their kids, or their children’s reactions are interfering with their ability to function, parents should contact their pediatricians or family physicians, recommends the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Children who were already struggling with their mental health before the shooting may struggle more with it afterward, Walkup said.
“There are times when your child is sick and you’re like, ‘OK, I can manage this as a parent,’” and there are times when your child is sick and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m making an appointment with the doctor,’” Liebler said.
Mental health issues should be no different, he said.
“There’s a time when you have to recognize what my child needs goes beyond what I’m able to offer them as a parent.”
For more information on talking to children about tragedies, visit https://www.luriechildrens.org/en/blog/talking-to-your-children-about-tragedies-in-the-news/.