Making sense of senseless violence

The violence that we read and hear about around the world today is impossible to fully comprehend and yet to help kids cope with it, we don’t have to really understand it. The incident in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday is the most recent event that hits home hard, showing how the world can be an unpredictable and unsafe place.

The senseless and random violent acts that infiltrate our daily lives via the media leave many of us feeling helpless, insecure and fearful. It’s important for all adults to recognize that our reactions to these events determine how our children will react to them.

As parents we may ask ourselves how we can explain these events to our child when we don’t understand them ourselves. It’s not easy rationalizing irrational events, and yet as parents, we need to find methods for discussing random violence. The Internet is bombarded with graphic images depicting worldwide violence. Given our children’s reliance on the web, avoiding it is not an option. When our children can read what we read, it’s best to be open and allow them the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their reactions. The way parents communicate about an event is the key factor in whether a child is overly reactive to it or not. Here are 10 ways to help children cope with the perpetual violence in our world today:

1. Take care of yourselves, parents. Parents are the No. 1 resource for children and therefore you need to be centered, despite the craziness of the world around you.

Process your feelings with other adults and allow your time with your children to be focused on what you can control, such as enjoying your lives together.

2. Limit access and exposure to TV, social media and “suggestible” discussions. Children do not take in graphic information or sensationalist pictures like parents do. They are impressionable and will have difficulty managing the images in their minds after they have seen them. Monitoring homework time when using a computer, or setting controls so that Internet is not readily available, may be essential to preventing your child from being bombarded with violent and scary graphics.

3. Be aware that many of us are in the “flight or fight” mode after hearing about random violence in local communities and schools. We think that if it happened there, it could happen here. The calmer, more centered you are as a parent, the easier it will be to get your child out of this mode and back to normal thinking.

4. Listen, be patient, and tolerate children’s irrational thoughts and fears without indulging them: “I know it’s scary and it feels like it’s going to be us next … and it’s not.” Children’s anxiety is irrational, so try not to address it rationally. Talk about how life will continue to happen the way you plan it every day.

5. Stay away from discussion or analysis about why things happened. Instead, focus on how you and your children can do things to make the world a better place. It’s true that you may not be able to help the victims of random violence directly, but you can help sick people at your local hospital or help those in need in other ways that show the world is a positive, good place. Empower your children to believe that they can “do” something to make the world a better place.

6. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior. Signs of moodiness, nightmares, sleep and eating disturbances can indicate that your child is in “fright mode.” Watch for increased anxiety in reaction to more immediate life issues (upcoming tests, exams, performances). Take these signs seriously and attempt to address them by offering more support through extra time together, and more reassurance. If that does not help calm the symptoms, pursue outside consultation with your pediatrician.

7. Help children remain fully engaged in their busy, active daily lives to distract them away from the violence, and remind them of what is good in their own lives. Encourage them not to over focus on tense events with their peers. Certain children will react more strongly and bring their anxiety into the lives of their friends. Tell your child that discussing these events without an adult present should be avoided.

8. Believe that all humans, including children, are resilient to the unnecessary violence in our world today.

9. It is normal for kids to feel upset, sad, confused or afraid after something bad happens; let your child know it’s OK to have these feelings and that they do pass. If kids can’t get back to the baseline or show difficulty adjusting to their routine and normal life, seek professional help.

10. Take care of yourselves, parents. Your children need you!

Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to, or