How to help kids process trauma from Highland Park parade shooting
As she prepared her children for bed on July 4, Holly Fleischer made sure to let her children know the doors and windows were locked and everyone was safe inside.
The mother of two boys, ages 4 and 6, wasn't at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade, but she knew many who were. The next day, Fleischer was at Highland Park High School counseling students, school staff and community members.
"The number one thing I would focus on as a parent right now is helping children to feel safe and allow them to voice their concerns to you," said Fleischer, who is the director of intervention services at Highland Park High School. Fleischer also ran the school's crisis center, a drop-in site for counseling, for several years.
Processing the grief and trauma from the events of the Highland Park mass shooting could take days, weeks and even months. And people will process that trauma differently, Fliescher said.
Some people may appear withdrawn or as if they are avoiding dealing with the trauma. For others, it may manifest in physical reactions, such as irritability, a hyper awareness of danger or difficulty sleeping.
Fleisher said it's important to remind children or adults that the crisis had a beginning and an end. For example, if a particular sound or scent triggers a reaction, Fleisher suggests talking through it by identifying the sound or scent that reminds people of the trauma and reminding them it is over and they are safe.
When talking about the shooting with children, Fleisher suggested keeping conversations age appropriate and letting children guide the discussion with their questions. For young elementary age students, Fleisher suggested keeping answers to their questions brief and simple.
"Focus on the facts, the people who helped and that there was a beginning and an end," she advised.
With upper elementary and middle school-age students, parents can add more details but should still let the child guide the conversation with their questions. With older middle school and high school students, parents may want to focus on how the student is processing the situation and ask them questions about what they may need or what would help them feel like they are safe or in control. At all age levels, seeking professional counseling, if needed, and limiting the consumption of media coverage about the event are advised.
Older children may find themselves consumed with talking about the incident with their friends. Parents can ask their child if talking about it is helping them or if the child is feeling overwhelmed by the conversations. If it's the latter, parents and children can discuss ways they can put limitations on those conversations if needed, Fleischer said.
Fleischer also urges parents to take care of themselves.
"If we're not taking care of our own basic needs, we're going to have a very difficult time taking care of our own children," she said.
Practicing healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating well and exercising, can help as people heal from the trauma. Even a walk around the neighborhood focusing on the scents, smells and scenery during the walk can help give the mind a break. She reminds parents to give themselves grace and acknowledge that not everything will be perfect in the days ahead.
For those who have friends or family who are working through the aftermath of the shooting, Fleischer said it is important to let them know help is available. She suggests reaching out and offering something specific to help, such as taking the children for lunch, running an errand or just listening.
"This has been an extremely frightening experience," she said. "The days, weeks and months following can be extremely stressful, but we are going to recover with the support of our relatives, friends and community ... we are going to heal."
Counseling services are available through the Family Resource Center at Highland Park High School from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Family Service of Lake County also is offering free counseling services to families in need. For more information about counseling services, vigils or other community events in response to the shooting, visit the city of Highland Park's website.