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Shoppers peer down at flowers left on a table in the food court at the Eaton Centre in Toronto on Monday. While many teens were rattled, most also say they will be quick to return to the scene to reclaim their turf. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Shoppers peer down at flowers left on a table in the food court at the Eaton Centre in Toronto on Monday. While many teens were rattled, most also say they will be quick to return to the scene to reclaim their turf. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

When violence invades teens’ stomping grounds Add to ...

Jessica Cahill, who works at a store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, normally visits the food court at the end of her shift to grab a bite to eat before heading home. But this past Saturday, she was running late and headed straight to the subway station. She narrowly missed a shooting at the food court that left one dead and six others injured.

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She felt uneasy about returning to work on Tuesday.

“I was actually really terrified because I thought it could’ve been me.... I literally missed it by, like, five minutes,” Ms. Cahill, 18, says. “If this happened once, it can definitely happen again.”

The Eaton Centre, a Toronto landmark and the largest shopping mall in the downtown core, serves as a weekend and after-school sanctuary for teens from all over the city. When news of the incident broke, teens turned to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to share information and express their shock.

To some the shooting felt like an intrusion on their turf, the violence shattering their sense of security. “I grew up here at the Eaton Centre. I’d hang out here with friends and stuff,” says Kris Pangilinan, 18, who lives near the mall . “If someone comes into our area and goes around pulling out weapons, I don’t want to come back.”

Others expressed relief that they weren’t at the mall at the time. Still other teens brushed off the incident as a freak occurrence. But while many teens were rattled, most also say they will be quick to return to the scene to reclaim their stomping grounds.

“I kinda want to go the Eaton Centre now, sort of [as] an act of defiance, if you will, even to get a drink or something because, you know, you’ve got to move on,” says Zachary Pothier, 18, of Oakville, Ont.

“These things happen and they’re terrible, but you just got to go on. I mean, I feel you’re just surrendering yourself to this kind of stuff if you change your life in any significant way or change what you do.”

As teens experience this wide range of emotions about the shooting, from shock and anger to defiance and indifference, parents may struggle to deal with it. Changes in teens’ mood and behaviour, such as increased irritability or aggression, and changes in sleeping patterns or nightmares may be signs of distress.

Charlesette Foster, a mental health practitioner and counsellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's health centre, says symptoms like anxiety and depression may not surface immediately. She counselled students who were traumatized by a fatal shooting at Westroads Mall in Omaha in 2007, that left nine people, including the gunman, dead.

“The trigger could really settle with the person much later because they might try to put it out of their minds or they might busy themselves with work at school or family responsibilities,” Ms. Foster says. “It might hit one day as they’re walking into the mall or hit as they’re getting home one day and realizing how they might have been in danger.”

While she believes many in Omaha recovered from the tragedy by leaning on their families and going to the mall in groups, she acknowledges it can be challenging for parents to protect and reassure their teens.

“We’re talking about kids who are seeking to individuate themselves from their parents and trying to go to the mall themselves and wanting that freedom.”

Nalini Iype, an art therapist in Toronto who specializes in therapy and counselling for children and adolescents, suggests parents should start by asking their teens how they feel about the shooting. While not all teens will be receptive to talking about their thoughts, offering the opportunity for discussion will at least let them know their parents are looking out for their well-being, she says.

The important thing is for parents to let teens explore their feelings, give them a chance to express themselves, and assure them that whatever they’re feeling is normal, she says. For those who feel particularly rattled, making an “in case of emergency” plan, such as deciding on a location to meet if something were to happen in your neighbourhood, can help teens feel a sense of control.

“There may be some kids who are not fazed by it at all, and that’s okay too,” Ms. Iype says, adding teens can be more resilient to traumatic events than parents expect. “It’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily going to be something that they hold onto,” she says. “So parents have to be aware also that they don’t want to put their anxieties onto their child.”

Ms. Foster notes that people want to continue with their lives as freely as possible after such incidents. Reports from the industry publication Retail Traffic have shown that shopping centres in the United States that experienced a shooting reported no decline in traffic, and some even saw an uptick in business after the tragedy. “[People] go back to doing the things that are normal,” Ms. Foster says. “And going to the mall is a normal, teenage activity.”

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