Following gunfire at day camp, Johnson County agencies urge parents to check backpacks, offer tips on coping with trauma

Johnson County Mental Health and the Johnson County Park and Recreation District hosted a forum on coping with traumatic events Monday following the gunfire incident at a local daycamp.

After a gun brought to a Johnson County Park and Recreation District daycamp by a 10 year old went off, Johnson County officials are launching a new initiative in hopes of preventing future incidents.

Thought no one was hurt by the gunfire, county officials, recognizing it could have been tragic, are urging parents to check their children’s backpacks. Calling the campaign “Take a Minute, See What’s in It,” Johnson County Park and Recreation District’s new backpack campaign urges parents and guardians to check their children’s backpacks, especially before they leave the house for school, camp, sports activities or a friend’s home, and check again after they return home.

The county has started a new initiative to encourage parents to check their kids’ backpacks frequently.

Johnson County Mental Health hosted a community forum at the Arts and Heritage Center on Monday to discuss how to help children cope after a traumatic experience.

“We wanted to take quick action on that, provide a resource to the parents whose families may have been affected by that incident, but we realize it goes far beyond that,” said Jill Geller, executive director of Johnson County Park & Recreation District. “Other incidents that may happen nearby us every day, things that your child sees on TV, and things that occur in our lives.”

One person in attendance was a Lenexa parent whose 8-year-old son had been in the room at the time of the shooting at New Century Fieldhouse. Lisa Markley said that even though her son was not traumatized, her takeaways from the forum left her confident that she was able to help her son in the immediate days afterward.

“It’s been an opportunity to just talk about the seriousness of guns and how dangerous they can be, and inappropriate use of guns and inappropriate access to guns,” she said. “It’s just opened up a lot of conversations that we’ve had in the last week.

Susan Rome, deputy director of Johnson County Mental Health, said she thinks the community forum has important information for all parents, whether or not their children experience trauma.

“All kids have challenging events in their life, and so it’s important for us as parents and other caregivers just to know how we can respond in a way that’s helpful and reducing the effects of challenging events,” Rome said. “We just want to be prepared to respond to kids and help them manage whatever they might be feeling.”

Janie Yannacito of Johnson County Mental Health shared tips on helping kids cope with trauma.

Children thrive on predictability and security so, in turn, traumatic events can be disturbing for them, said Janie Yannacito, clinical director of children and family services at Johnson County Mental Health. Exposure to traumatic events, whether in person or through the media, may cause fear and anxiety; Yannacito said these reactions are normal.

Parents and guardians can help their children cope with trauma in a number of ways. Here are some takeaway tips:

Nurture them

  • Express love
  • Be available
  • Give them opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings
  • Foster a sense of connection
  • Look for signs of anxiety

Reassure them

  • Maintain normal routines
  • Encourage discussion and expression of feelings
  • Talk about safety measures in place

Help them interpret what happened

  • Provide facts that are simple and age-appropriate
  • Limit exposure to media
  • Continue conversations, and be patient with the same questions over and over
  • Talk about helpers in the community, such as teachers, counselors and firefighters, who can help them when they’re in need

Teach them coping skills

  • Journaling (sometimes more helpful for older children)
  • Drawing (sometimes more helpful for younger children)
  • Helping activities, such as volunteering

Be a role model

  • Children are influenced by their parent’s reactions
  • Remain calm – focus on children’s needs
  • Share your own reactions (in moderation)

Open the dialogue

  • Children need someone they trust – to listen, accept their feelings and be there for them
  • Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say
  • Don’t be silent because silence won’t protect them; it will prevent them from understanding and coping with the situation

Start the conversation

  • Ask your child what they think happened, such as “What have you heard about….?” and “Are there other things that are bothering you right now?”
  • Help find words to describe feelings, such as “angry,” “sad,” “scared” or “worried”
  • Let them know it is normal to feel worried or upset
  • Provide reassurance because it makes them feel a sense of safety

Children can show fear or worry in a number of ways, Rome said. These include physical symptoms, such as stomach aches and headaches, or behavioral changes, including withdrawal, hyperactivity or increased clinginess. They can show signs of tearfulness or sadness or helplessness. They may show moodiness or irritability, or even start acting out, fighting or showing signs of regression or changes in their sleep.

Children, nonetheless, are resilient, Rome said, adding that it’s normal to be distressed after trauma or even a difficult day. However, If three weeks have passed and your child is still showing behaviors from the trauma, contact a professional.

Adults should make sure to take care of themselves too, after a traumatic experience, said Rome, urging the importance to get enough sleep, eat balanced meals and try to keep a routine. Seeking support from other adults, reflecting on what happened and getting support for your child are all important as well.

“It’s important that we just open the conversation so that we can communicate with kids and with each other about things that are difficult,” Rome said.