Helping Children Make Sense of Horrific Events

By Jake Murray

It was a challenging week to be a parent and to explain the world and the actions of “grown-ups.”   In back-to-back dinner conversations, my wife and I found ourselves discussing with our two sons—an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old—the Aurora, CO shooting and the Penn State scandal.  There was a lot of ground to cover— safety, mental illness, sexual abuse, guns and gun control, violence in movies, cover up, etc.—and we did our best, though often times fumbling through, to explain these issues to our boys.

Jake Murray One particularly complex topic we discussed is the premise that not all adults are safe, responsible, or empathetic towards children or other adults.  We shared that there are a variety of reasons adults can be this way.  Some have mental illnesses – and can have minds that perceive the world in a confused, scary, and confrontational way.   Some are victims themselves – and had bad things happen to them when they were children or adults, so feel it is OK to do the same to others.   And with some adults, we just don’t know why they do bad things – there’s no obvious or neat answer.  It was, of course, an oversimplification, but one my boys needed to hear at the time.

We then shifted to a “ what does this all mean?” conversation.  We left our boys with two takeaways:

  • We – and all parents—have to regularly identify with our children the circle of “safe” adults in their lives, and depending on their age, help them recognize behaviors and actions that are concerning.   For example, my son’s camp counselor should not ask him if he wants to go over to his house.
  • The much larger number of “safe” adults have a responsibility to identify and get help for – and if need be detain—the much smaller number of adults who are not safe, responsible, or empathetic towards children or other adults.

As non-child development professionals, it was the best we could come up with during a troubling week.  I’d love to hear how other families dealt with these topics.   Unfortunately, we will likely need to have many of these conversations with our children over time- so sound advice on this difficult task is welcome.


Jake Murray is the Senior Director of the Wheelock College Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as an organizational leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.


Great piece! I especially liked that this was a conversation. Rather than simply sharing your views, it sounds like you tried to uncover how your sons understood and interpreted these events. I think it’s also important to tell kids to follow their instincts when they feel uncomfortable and to err on the side of safety.

Posted @ Saturday, July 28, 2012 11:20 PM by Richard Weissbourd