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Attending large events following a tragedy

Family sitting at a sporting event

Our community is still processing the events of the post-Super Bowl parade. A day meant for celebration quickly turned into a nightmare for families who were in attendance, or even watching it on TV. As your family considers attending large events – sporting events, concerts, shows – that you once enjoyed, planning these activities now comes with extra concern.

When your family is ready to attend a large event will mostly depend on your family’s comfort level. If your children are not expressing worries or fears, or they have some fears, but you believe you can help them manage their emotions, you can likely attend an event without causing additional distress. If your child is expressing extreme fears or demonstrating behaviors (e.g., panic attacks), it’s important to seek out mental health services to identify a way to help them cope and gradually return to attending large events with the proper support.

Keep reading to see how to make the best decision for your family to return to large events, and also listen to our recent podcast on talking to your kids about tragic events. 

What are some behaviors to watch for in my children following a traumatic event?

Children and teens will react differently after a traumatic event, and there is no “normal” response. Some children may have emotional (e.g., fear, sadness) and behavioral (e.g., being clingy, trouble sleeping) reactions, while others may display more severe responses (e.g., nightmares, increased startle response). If your child persistently has 1 or more of the heightened traumatic stress reactions below, it’s important to seek help from a medical or mental health professional:

  • Avoiding people, places, or things that bring back memories
  • Panic symptoms (heart palpitations, rapid breathing) when not in danger
  • Withdrawal from family or peers
  • Changes in appearance, not taking care of personal hygiene
  • Feeling shame or blame – “if only” thoughts
  • Feeling sad
  • Increased anger responses
  • Nightmares
  • Memories of the event, even when they are trying not to think about it
  • Safety concerns – thoughts or threats of self-harm or suicide
  • Trouble with memory – not remembering directions.
  • Teens may exhibit risk-taking behaviors – using drugs or alcohol, breaking curfew
  • Any other symptoms that interfere with daily activities

How long it takes to recover will depend on what happened to you and your family during and after this event. Children and teens may react differently depending on their age and prior experiences. Expect youth to respond in different ways and be supportive and understanding of different reactions.

How do I gauge my children’s comfort level attending future large events, and how can we make the best decision for our family?

  • Have the conversation. Talk with your children about their feelings. Directly ask them if they have worries or fears about attending large events. Be prepared to validate their feelings and answer questions they might have. At the same time, don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to. These conversations are difficult, but not talking about it can make the event more threatening in your child’s mind. Having these conversations lets your child know they can rely on you and they are not alone with these intense emotions. Things to look for in your child while having this conversation:
    • Are their fears rooted in the past (parade) or future (potential for additional shootings)?
    • Are they showing behavioral changes that indicate they’re worried or distressed by attending a large event?
    • Try to determine what factors could be worrying your child related to the event. These could be things like the event's size or the venue's familiarity. For example, your child might feel comfortable attending the Royals game because they are familiar with the area but express not wanting to attend the St. Patrick's Day parade because they have never been.
  • Be intentional. Plan a time to have the conversation. Use the time your family would usually eat or sit together in the evening to talk about what is happening in the community. Try not to have these conversations close to bedtime, as this is the time for resting.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Ask children what concerns they have about attending the event, as opposed to whether or not they have concerns. Ask children to identify how big their feelings are to help gauge their comfort level. If they express having “big” worries, it might influence you not to attend (for now).
  • Provide answers, as best you can. Your child may have some difficult questions – and you may not have all the answers. For example, they may ask if it is possible it could happen again. They are probably really asking whether it is “likely.” The concern about re-occurrence will be an issue for both children and caregivers. While it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk, your child is also asking if they are safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in any crisis.

How can I make sure my kids feel safe?

  • Let them know you and the safety officials are working to keep them safe. When our kids are worried, we want to reassure them – and we should. But too much reassurance can signal they should be worried when they are not. As a caregiver, you know the right balance for your child.
  • Manage reminders. Help children identify different reminders (people, places, sounds, smells, feelings) and clarify the difference between the event and the reminders that occur after it. When children experience a reminder, they can say to themselves, “I am upset because I am reminded of the shooting because the potato chip bag popped. But now there is no shooting, and I am safe.”
  • Help your child cope. Identify coping strategies for you and your child/teen to use if they begin to feel distressed. These can include:
    • Validating feelings: “You went through something scary and awful; it makes sense that you feel this way. Right now, you are safe.”
    • Body awareness: “You may notice your heart is beating faster than usual. Your body is on high alert, and you feel unsafe. Although you feel scared, you are not in danger. Right now, you are safe.”
    • Expressing support: “You are not alone. I am here for you.”
    • Calming strategies: Hold your child’s hand, take slow breaths together or repeat a mantra (e.g., “My family is with me. I am not alone.”).

Is there a safety plan you can make if you decide to attend the event?

If appropriate, make a safety plan together as a family, but try to avoid over-preparing for a disaster or safety event because that could be frightening for children.

  • Go back to basics. Any time your family is planning to attend a event with large crowd, it’s good to have a plan for what you’ll do if children get separated, how parents will monitor, etc. These are good practices even in the absence of any threats.
  • Discuss hypothetical emergency situations and calmly talk with your children about how to keep themselves safe when danger presents itself.
  • Instruct them to trust and seek help from police and other authorities who will likely be on the scene quickly.
  • Always encourage your children to say something when they see something suspicious.
  • Establish a communication plan for locating family members to help reduce anxiety. Parents should know where their children are, and children should tell parents when they have changed locations.
  • Some children may want to establish a secret sign or code word so they can more privately let you know they feel unsafe and need extra care: “If we are with others and you need me to know you are not feeling OK, what can you do or say so I will know you need my support or that you might want to leave?”

We hope this information helps guide your family’s conversations about attending future events. For additional resources, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Child Psychology

Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine