I took my daughter to an amusement park. Then a shooting happened

This story originally aired 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 tickets all through our teenage years in the 90s and now my kids have season tickets too. It’s a nostalgic experience to go with them as an adult. Their excitement, anticipation, and “let’s do it again” mentality hit my memory hard.

But on August 14, a new memory will remain forever etched in my memory.

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 most – crowds, long lines, the sound of elated screams and the smell of funnel cake in the air.

With 15 minutes until closing, we queued up for one last X-Flight ride. After a few minutes the ride suddenly stopped and the operator announced that there was a delay. I told the girls that I didn’t want to wait and that we could try to take another turn on the way out.

As we came out of line, a teenager in front of me turned around and said, “I think there’s a shooting.

After the confusion and a lot of commotion, I told the girls to stay together and run and that we had to get to the car as quickly as possible. I assumed a mass shooting was taking place. We were in the middle of the park, and the exit seemed far away. I kept saying, “Look around you. Stay focused. Keep moving.

As we were running, my daughter said, “What if they’re on the way out? I told him that it was possible, but that we had to keep moving forward. The truth is, I had no idea if what I was doing was the best reaction. I was going with my instincts and definitely in flight mode of the fight, flight or freeze response.

As we headed out it was scary and intense. Other people were also running, some hiding behind sanitary buildings and others standing still talking on the phone. When we finally got to the car, I told the girls to get down until I got out of the parking lot, because I wasn’t sure if the parking lot was safe.

During our exit, we passed several police cars already in the parking lot and others going to the scene.

Once on the freeway, I called my husband and said, “There was a shooting. We are well. We’ll be home in 20.

The return journey was tense. The girls were scared, upset and worried about other people in the park.

“There were so many families there and small children,” my daughter’s friend said. “I hope no one was hurt.”

When we got home, the first thing my daughter said to her dad was, “Can we have a gun? »

Living in a time of increasing mass shootings

Based on the Gurnee Police Department’s initial investigation, the incident was not an active shooter event, but rather a targeted incident, in which a car drove into the parking lot near the main entrance and shot three people on his way out. Two people were treated for injuries at a nearby hospital and one refused treatment.

“This was a directed and targeted incident and unfortunately it happened in a place where families come to relax, have a good time and enjoy the day and the shooters took no notice of that,” said Shawn Gaylor of Crime Prevention. detective at the Gurnee Police Department.

About six weeks before the Great America incident, a tragic mass shooting occurred at a 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, just a few towns from my home. Seven people lost their lives and dozens more were injured. My daughter and I were ready to go to our town’s parade when it was canceled because the shooter was on the loose.

The two incidents close together and close to home, in addition to the horrific shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, in May of this year, made me wonder how my children and all children growing up around this time could be affected.

“If something happens in your city, it’s upsetting, but maybe not as traumatic as being in the building where it happened. Hearing about it on the news, you’re a little further away , and the most acute effects are in those most at risk,” says Tamar Mendelson, PhD, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at Johns Hopkins University.

However, she said learning about mass shootings and gun violence in the news and social media or from people in their lives shapes children’s awareness of their surroundings and gives them a sense of danger and threatens.

“It can shape children’s perception that the world is a more dangerous place and that they need to find ways to protect themselves because they may not be safe. However, there are differences in how children react. Some children are more anxious than others and may concentrate more than others,” Mendelson explains.

Striking a balance between making children aware of potential dangers without alarming them is one of Gaylor’s goals when working with schools on active shooter drills and safety plans.

“I’m in schools constantly trying to figure out how to make that environment a safe environment for our children, but at the same time not inundating them with safety information and precautions to the point that they’re afraid to live their lives. “, she said. said.

The statistics drive police officers like Gaylor to continue to educate and prepare children and the public. According to The Marshall Project’s analysis of data from a mass shooter database maintained by The Violence Project, there have been more mass shootings in the past five years than in any other half-decade dating back to 1966.

Given this reality, Gaylor says it’s hard for young children to understand the potential of school shootings, but at the same time she thinks they’ll get used to it “like you’re doing a drill. tornado or a fire drill, and it’ll 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 arrived in Great America, my city’s police department held a workshop on how to respond to an active shooter situation. I participated and learned a lot. The biggest takeaway, however, is that as a community and society, this is something we will need to continue to prepare for.

Chronic exposure to violence

In the days following the Great America event, I kept thinking about the people who lost their lives in the mass shootings and those who survived them too. I also felt deep sadness for people living constantly exposed to violence in communities across the United States. For example, Chicago recorded 1,885 shootings in the city from the start of the year to the end of August.

“For many young people across the country, it’s not about hearing about an unusual shooting, it’s about experiencing the violence every day in their own communities,” Mendelson says.

While it’s important to focus on mass shootings, when increased attention is paid to them, she says it adds to the neglect of issues that regularly occur.

“There are a lot of young people growing up in chronically traumatic environments who don’t get the attention they deserve,” Mendelson says. “Many young people feel neglected in their experiences and many feel insensitive to it. They have seen and experienced so many local shootings.

For children who are exposed to gunfire, she adds, they are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their opinions about school and the world are also negatively impacted.

“Some young people may have symptoms right after an event for a short time, and they go away, and some may not show signs for a while and they emerge later, and others may never show signs of PTSD,” Mendelson said.

How to talk with children about violent events

Before adults have conversations with children 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 should be twofold, letting them know that they are safe at this time and that you will do everything you can within your control to keep them safe. Reassuring them in an honest way can help bring them out of a state of fear and panic so they can allow their emotional experience to be shared,” she says.

She recommended asking them if they have any questions, so they feel more comfortable voicing their concerns, as well as discouraging them from getting information on social media or the news, which can increase drama and intensity and, in turn, create more panic, anxiety or traumatic stress.

Mendelson agrees and insists on having open conversations with children in a calm manner.

“The trick is to make sure we don’t go into more detail or complexity about where they are in their development and age,” she says. “But being honest is important. It’s okay to recognize that something really bad happened and something was scary.

For me, a sense of calm 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 said how scary it was.

During the quieter part of the drive home, I told them, “For as much evil as there is in this world, there is more good.

As a generally optimistic person, this is how I really feel, but in the days that followed, I wondered if this feeling could appear to be a serious problem.

“We all have our own view of the world and we share it with our children,” Mendelson says. “As parents, we know there are bad things in the world and things that we can’t protect our children from, and it’s a balance between acknowledging that and teaching them the joyful things and all the ways which they can be safe most of the time.”

Harold B. McConnell