Responding to Acts of Senseless Violence

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by Leslie Larsen, LCSW

Take Care of Yourselves
First, it is okay for us as adults to have intense feelings following tragic and senseless acts of violence, so find another supportive adult with whom you can share your feelings. Once you have released some of your own upset, you can be less reactive and more present when talking with your children about what has happened. And, if you become overwhelmed with sadness when talking with your child, go ahead and cry. Perhaps, say something, “I’m sad about what happened today.”

Talk with Your Children About the Tragedy 
I would encourage you to ask your children, even your young children, what they know about the event and how they are feeling about it. Patty Wipfler, parenting expect and founded of Hand in Hand parenting, recommends acknowledging something terrible happened while sharing as little detail as possibly about the specific act of violence. She suggests saying something like, “I heard on the news today someone did some things that hurt other people.” I would encourage you to follow that up with asking them what they know about the incident so you can correct misinformation, ease fears and offer reassurance they are safe now, and that it is unlikely to happen to them.

Older children will likely ask additional questions, so as a caregiver I encourage you to answer those in an age appropriate manner, taking your child’s sensitivities into consideration. If your child is highly sensitive, tell them less and consider shielding them from the media response.  This may mean adding additional blocks on their electronic devises or holding onto their phones and tablets for a while. Wipfler recommends explaining this type of protective action to our children in the following way, “There is a lot of grown-up stuff happening in the news right now, [so I’m going to hold on to your phone for a few days].”

Take Time to Listen to Our Children and Validate Their Feelings
In times like this it is important to listen, normalize and reassure your children while they feel their feeling. Patty Wipfler states, “Children need to be told explicitly that they are safe, that you will keep them safe, and that you will do what you can to help people work together so harmful things don’t happen.” As parents and caregivers you can help your children release these feeling and feel safe again by staying close, listening and reassuring them. Wipfler reminds us children often use a relatively insignificant incident, such as a broken cookie or the wrong colored plate, to offload an upset that has been stored away. As a parent it is important to remind yourself, it isn’t likely to really be the broken cookie or wrong colored plate that has your child so upset. And, that it’s okay for your children to use seemingly insignificant situations to work through their repressed feelings. Remember when children are working through stored up feelings the process is not likely to go quickly, so be patient. And, remember it is likely that your child’s emotions will escalate before they are able to release the stored away feelings.

Aid Your Children in Moving Forward 
Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D. recommend talking with your children about people working hard to keep things like this from happening again. As many of us know from personal experiences, taking action helps all of us in moving forward and restoring hope. There are a multitude of things you can do to help your children positively impact our communities or those who were directly impacted by the tragedy. I encourage us all to do a little something to celebrate our lives and privileges.