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Helping our children make sense of random acts

mother and daughterEvery day there are events on the news that can be distressing and even traumatic for children. But when a random act of violence occurs close to home at a community event focused on food and families, taking the lives of children, the challenge of helping our children make sense of a terrible event is much greater. It is important to recognize that the challenge is also greater for adults trying to make some sense of senseless violence when it affects our community, our neighbors, our friends, our family.

If adults at home are talking about the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, then the children at home have probably heard about this tragedy. Children may understand events, danger, and even meaning in different ways at different ages, but at every age they will benefit from being able to share their questions, feelings, and fears with caring adults.

With the youngest children, it is important to remember to turn off the television, as they may worry that attacks continue to occur. Repeated viewing of videos is only likely to raise anxiety and distress, not offer understanding and perspective. It is important to be curious with children of all ages about what they have heard and what they are wondering or worried about. Try not to make assumptions. Instead, invite them to explain in detail what they are thinking, wondering, or feeling. Always offer children appropriate reassurance about their safety, but don’t be dismissive of feelings of sadness, anger, or fear. Reassure them while acknowledging that strong feelings after a senseless event are normal and bearable if you share them with others you trust and care about.

Channeling feelings into support

One powerful outlet may be to consider how they might be helpful. Think together about ways they might offer support or comfort to the people most directly affected in Gilroy, perhaps by making cards for first responders or collecting donations for the local Red Cross or other community service agencies. Older children and teenagers may be interested in ways they might advocate for policy changes, and you can think with them about how they might work to prevent gun violence. It can be helpful to simply think of ways to offer care and support to vulnerable people, even if it is not directly connected to the events in Gilroy. Putting effort into helping others is powerfully therapeutic when you feel sad, frightened, and powerless.

It is important to remember that you are the experts on your children. Some children, especially those with a history of trauma, a recent loss or big transition, or those vulnerable to anxiety, may be especially vulnerable to the stress and distress associated with horrifying acts of public violence. Some children will not bring the subject up or ask about it, but may become more withdrawn, sleepless, or irritable. Some children may become afraid about going to public events or crowded places, or may display more anxiety than usual about the start of the school year. Not every feeling will be connected to the tragedy in Gilroy, but it may pay to ask about it. When people keep worries to themselves, they usually expand. Remind your children to “never worry alone,” and think with them about all of the caring adults they can turn to if they have a question or worry.

Remember to take care of yourself, too

And remember to maintain this level of caring, patience, and support for yourself and other connected adults. Bearing witness to random acts of violence in our community is profoundly upsetting and frightening, and their growing regularity can create a deep feeling of powerlessness and despair. Consider where your meaningful comfort and support comes from.  Pay extra attention to those adults who may be vulnerable to this fear or despair. And consider how you may be of help, whether to those directly affected by this event, or to the broader community in supporting its vitality and well-being, and preventing future episodes of senseless violence.

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