As adults try to comprehend the horrors of the July 4 parade shooting in Highland Park, many have been left with a disturbing task: Explaining what happened to 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 tragedy 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.
“They have to tell their kids. They have no choice,” said Dafna Lender, a child and family therapist in Evanston. “Their kids know there’s something wrong even if they weren’t there.”
Lender 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.”
Parents should start conversations with their children by asking what they know, advises The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Parents can ask open-ended questions, said Gene Liebler, executive director of behavioral health and community at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
“You’ve got to have the facts and be able to talk about them reasonably,” Liebler said.
Parents should also consider a child’s developmental level and personality when deciding how to respond, 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 should also work to 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.”
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 information, Liebler said.
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.
“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/.