This story originally ran on Healthline in September. Cathy Cassata is a writer for Chicago Health and Healthline.
Going to Six Flags Great America amusement park in Gurnee, Illinois, has been a part of my life since I was a kid. My sister and I had season passes throughout our teen years in the ’90s and now my kids have season passes, too. It’s a nostalgic experience to go with them as an adult. Their excitement, anticipation, and “let’s go on it again” mentality strikes my memory chords hard.
But on August 14, a new memory will forever be placed in my mind.
I took my 12-year-old daughter and her friend to the park that day. I wasn’t going to stay with them but decided to at the last minute. It was a typical day for the most part — crowds, long lines, the sound of elated screams, and the smell of funnel cake in the air.
With 15 minutes left before closing, we jumped in line for one last ride on X-Flight. After a few minutes, the ride suddenly stopped running, and the operator announced that there was a delay. I told the girls I didn’t want to wait and that we could try to catch a different ride on our way out.
As we exited the line, a teenager in front of me turned and said, “I think there’s a shooting.”
After confusion and a lot of commotion, I told the girls to stay together and run and that we needed to get to the car as fast as we could. I assumed a mass shooting was taking place. We were in the middle of the park, and the exit seemed far. I kept saying, “Look at your surroundings. Stay focused. Keep moving.”
As we ran, my daughter said, “What if they’re at the exit?” I told her, it was possible, but we had to keep moving. The truth is, I had no idea if what I was doing was the best reaction. I was going with my gut and definitely in flee mode of the fight, flight, or freeze response.
As we made our way toward the exit, it was scary and intense. Other people were running too, some were hiding behind bathroom buildings, and some were standing still talking on their phones. When we finally made it to the car, I told the girls to get on the floor until I drove out of the lot, as I didn’t know if the parking lot was safe.
On our drive out, we passed several police cars already in the parking lot and more making their way to the scene.
Once we were on the expressway, I called my husband and said, “There was a shooting. We’re fine. We’ll be home in 20.”
The ride home was tense. The girls were scared, upset, and concerned for other people at the park.
“There were so many families there and little kids,” said my daughter’s friend. “I hope no one was hurt.”
When we got home, the first thing my daughter said to her dad was, “Can we get a gun?”
Living in a time of increasing mass shootings
Based on the initial investigation from the Gurnee Police Department, the incident was not an active shooter event, but rather a targeted incident, in which a car drove into the parking lot near the front entrance and shot three people exiting it. Two people were treated for injuries at a nearby hospital, and one declined care.
“This was a directed, targeted incident, and unfortunately, it took place in a location where families come to relax and have a good time and enjoy the day and there was no regard for that from the shooters,” says Shawn Gaylor, crime prevention detective at the Gurnee Police Department.
About six weeks before the Great America incident, a tragic mass shooting occurred during a 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, which is a few towns away from where I live. The lives of seven people were taken and dozens more were injured. My daughter and I were ready to go to our town’s parade when it was canceled due to the shooter being on the loose.
The two incidents close together and near our home, in addition to the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May of this year, made me wonder how my kids and all children growing up in these times might be affected.
“If something happens in your town, it’s upsetting, but maybe not as traumatic as being in the building where it took place. Hearing about it on the news you are a bit more removed, and the most acute effects are for those more closely exposed,” says Tamar Mendelson, PhD, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at Johns Hopkins University.
However, she said learning of mass shootings and gun violence on the news and social media or from people in their lives, shapes kids’ awareness of their environment and gives them a sense of danger and threat.
“It can shape children’s perceptions that the world is a more dangerous place, and they need to find ways to protect themselves because they may not be safe. However, there are differences in how kids respond. Some kids are more anxious than others and may focus on it more than others,” says Mendelson.
Striking a balance of making kids aware of potential dangers without alarming them is one of Gaylor’s goals when she works with schools on active shooter drills and safety plans.
“I’m in the schools constantly trying to figure out how do we make this a safe environment for our kids, but at the same time not inundate them with so much safety information and precautions that they get scared to live their lives,” she says.
Statistics drive the need for police officers like Gaylor to continue informing and preparing kids and the public. According to data analysis by The Marshall Project of a mass shooter database kept by The Violence Project, there were more mass shootings in the past five years than in any other half-decade going back to 1966.
Given this reality, Gaylor says comprehending the potential for school shootings is difficult for younger kids, but at the same time she believes they are going to get used to them “like you do a tornado drill or fire drill, and it’s going to become a normal part of society, which is kind of sad and scary to think about at the same time.”
Incidentally, 10 days after I was at Great America, my town’s police department held a workshop on responding to an active shooter situation. I attended and learned a lot. The biggest takeaway, though, was that as a community and society, this is something we’ll have to continue to prepare for.
Chronic exposure to violence
In the days following the Great America event, I kept thinking about people who lost their lives to mass shootings and those who survived them, too. I also felt a deep sadness for people living in constant exposure to violence in communities throughout the U.S. For instance, Chicago had 1,885 shootings in the city from the beginning of the year through the end of August.
“For many of the young people in the country it’s not about hearing about an unusual shooting, but it’s experiencing day-to-day violence in their own communities,” says Mendelson.
While focusing on mass shootings is important, when a heightened focus is given to these, she says it adds to the neglect of problems that are happening on a regular basis.
“There are many young people growing up in chronically traumatic environments who are not getting the attention that they deserve,” Mendelson says. “Many young people feel neglected in their experiences and many feel numb to it. They’ve seen and experienced so many local shootings.”
For kids who are exposed to shootings, she adds that they are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their views on school and the world are also impacted negatively.
“Some young people may have symptoms right after an event for a short time, and they go away, and others may not show signs for a while and they emerge later, and others may never show signs of PTSD,” says Mendelson.
How to talk with kids about violent events
Before adults have conversations with kids about traumatic events, Gina Moffa, LCSW, psychotherapist, says they should first process their own feelings to avoid projecting their emotional experience onto their children.
“Talking with children about these events must be two-pronged as in letting them know they are safe right now and that you will do all you can in your control to keep them safe. Reassuring them in an honest way can help take them out of a fear and panic state to be able to allow in their emotional experience for sharing,” she says.
She recommended asking them if they have any questions, so they can feel more comfortable voicing their concerns, as well as discouraging them from getting information from social media or the news, which can heighten the drama and intensity and in turn, create more panic, anxiety, or traumatic stress.
Mendelson agrees and stresses having open conversations with kids in a calm manner.
“The trick is making sure we’re not getting into more detail or complexity for where they are in their development and their age,” she says. “But being honest is important. It’s okay to acknowledge that something really bad happened and something was scary.”
For me, a sense of calmness took over after about 15 minutes in the car, and I told the girls I was proud of them for being brave and listening to me so well. We talked about how scary it was.
During the quietest moment on the ride home, I told them, “For as much bad as there is in this world, there is more good.”
As a generally optimistic person, this is how I truly feel, but in the days after I said it, I wondered if this sentiment could come across as sugar-coating a serious problem.
“We all have our views of the world and we share that with our kids,” says Mendelson. “As parents, we know there are bad things in the world and things we can’t protect our kids from, and it’s a balance between acknowledging that and also teaching them the joyful things and all the ways they can be safe most of the time.”