As adults try to make sense of the horrors of the July 4th parade shooting in Highland Park, many are left with a disturbing task: explaining to children what happened.
In the past, Chicago-area parents could have avoided difficult conversations with their young children about mass shootings in other areas of the borough. But the Highland Park tragedy has made that all but impossible for many parents, as their children wonder why parades and fireworks were suddenly canceled on Monday. In the northern suburbs, cancellations continued through Tuesday, with some day camps and park districts on hiatus.
“You have to tell your kids. You have no choice,” said Dafna Lender, a child and family therapist in Evanston. “Their children know something is wrong even if they weren’t there.”
Lender said she has been taking calls from customers since Monday’s shooting that killed six people and injured dozens more.
“One of the most important things is completely truthful disclosures, not trying to hide reality because kids are sensing it,” Lender said. “When you convey an opposite message to what they’re feeling, it creates an inner dissonance, and that’s more disturbing than anything that’s 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 have to have the facts and be able to reason with them,” Liebler said.
Parents should also consider a child’s developmental level and personality when deciding how to respond, Liebler said. Anxious children, for example, are likely to need more reassurance that they and their families are not in imminent danger, he said.
With younger children, parents should be honest but keep their answers short and sweet, Lender said. They can also provide assurances that their families are safe and that the police have caught the suspect.
Parents should also work to limit media exposure at home, advises the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“When you’re at home and the news is on, maybe you’re doing something different, but you’re listening carefully,” Liebler said.
Of course, this can be more difficult for parents of teenagers, who often have their own smartphones.
“For older children, there will be a lot more streams of information coming their way,” Liebler said. “Some could be misinformation or disinformation. They want to make sure you have good fact-based answers to share with them.”
When parents talk to teens, they should keep their conversations low-key, ask questions about their teens’ thoughts, and avoid lectures, Lender said.
Parents, too, shouldn’t be afraid to seek help if they think their children are having trouble handling the information, Liebler said.
If parents are concerned about their children or their children’s reactions are affecting their ability to function, parents should contact their pediatrician or family doctor, recommends the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“There are times when your child is sick and you’re like, ‘Okay, I can handle that as a parent,'” and there are times when your child is sick and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’ll make an appointment with the Doctor,” said Liebler.
Mental health issues should be no different, he said.
“There comes a time when you have to realize what my child needs is beyond what I can provide as a parent.”
For more information on talking to children about tragedies, see https://www.luriechildrens.org/en/blog/talking-to-your-children-about-tragedies-in-the-news/.