Parenting in our new normal: what can we do about the culture of violence?

In the wake of Friday’s incomprehensible horror in Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School I, like many other parents today, feel deeply impacted, shaken and terrified for the safety of my child. While I would like nothing more right now than to hold him tight and not let go, lockdown our house, and turn to homeschooling I realize that such a life paralyzed by fear is not the answer for me or my family. So what is? What can I do? What do I have control over? And how can I protect my child from such horror? Unfortunately I do not have the answers to all of these questions, but I have found some tools that help me stay grounded amidst the uncertainty and the fear, perhaps not all of the time, but enough. I have also learned some very doable and valuable tools that I believe can make a real difference in reducing violence among our generation’s children. In sharing these with you I will look at what is both out of my control and in my control and invite you to do the same as you read. I also invite you to examine your own values and to create parenting strategies and environments that support those values. Lastly I invite you to look at ways in which you can make a difference to stop perpetuating violence in our society at a political level, a community level, and first and foremost in your own family. This isn’t an easy subject but here we go…

What I CAN NOT control: No more can I control the wrath of nature or a car or plane crash or a terminal illness, can I control the safety of my child at every waking moment and especially in those moments when he is not with me. This seems a bit incomprehensible as I am his mother and instinctually here to protect him but this is reality nonetheless. Though there are actions I can take to encourage health and safety, ultimately I know that I can not control the future, fate, destiny, or the actions of other people. I hate to accept this as truth but when I am willing to consider it, if even for a few moments, I do tend to feel more at peace. Unfortunately I am not personally zen-like enough to sit with such harsh reality for very long, so the anxiety quickly sets in again, but this is a practice. I use the tools below to help me practice acceptance and to help me stay grounded in the face of fear, anxiety and the harsh realities of life.

TOOLS to stay grounded: I often find solace in the serenity prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I often recite this to myself and it helps to center me and bring me peace and calm in the moment. I invite you to try this or to create your own mantra that you can pull out whenever you need a reminder and a gentle push to keep going in the face of struggle or uncertainty. Another tool I use is writing a gratitude journal. Writing down what I am grateful for or what IS working, or what IS good and lovely in my life or in the world takes the focus, if even for a moment, away from what is not and has the capacity to bring forth a sense of peace and clarity in the moment. Exercise, Yoga and Meditation are also helpful as we take deep breaths, clear the mind and move the body – all of which have been shown to increase positive feelings, reduce stress, and impact both physical and emotional wellbeing. Lastly, making time for my own self-care (be it journaling, writing this blog post, a quiet cup of coffee or a massage) as well as having a buddy or two to process my thoughts with (thanks Mindy, thanks Kathy!) are important tools for every parent.

What I CAN control: Once I come to terms with what I can not control I can more easily see that which I can. I CAN get more involved politically and/or write to congress to support gun control. I CAN talk to my son’s school about safety protocols and procedures. I CAN talk to a child (depending on age) about safety precautions in case of emergency and put a family plan in place if age appropriate. I CAN consciously use media in my home and prohibit my child from playing violent video games that desensitize killing and violence. I CAN focus on DeGaetano’s Vital Five™ (2004), to help my child grow and thrive socially and emotionally and I CAN teach others to do the same as together we envision a world in which more children have their needs met and less children turn to violence.

TOOLS for healthy social/emotional development: (Based on DeGaetano’s Vital Five™):

I CAN hold my child tight and hug and kiss him every single day. I CAN be present with him and nurture him and connect with him in deep meaningful ways to ensure a loving parent-child bond that promotes healthy social and emotional development, empathy and healthy intimate relationships later in life.

I CAN turn off the television in my house even if it is only on in the background, as this is distracting to my child from having his own thoughts. I CAN create a special place in my home for quiet/thinking time to encourage him to go within and develop a rich inner life that supports self-awareness, self-regulation and inspiration.

I CAN read, talk and play with my child every day to encourage the capacity for healthy image-making and I CAN be mindful of the language and images he is exposed to and that will later become part of his internal thoughts and images. I CAN turn off the news when he’s around or I CAN (age-appropriate) talk with him about what he is seeing and help him process it. I CAN stand by my values and SAY NO to violent video games because I know that these are not the images nor the messages I want him to internalize.

I CAN do creative activities with my child such as paint, draw or make up games to encourage his creative expression because creativity helps develop confidence, self-appreciation and a connection to life. I CAN brainstorm with him and I CAN encourage his curiosity at any age by asking “what if” questions. I CAN make a no-television or video-game rule when his friends come over and suggest that they make up a game instead, even if this doesn’t earn me the coolest mom on the block award!

I CAN talk with my child about giving to others, I CAN model it to him and I CAN provide age-appropriate opportunities for him to make a difference, because I want him to feel connected to the larger world. Contribution keeps us connected to others and has been linked to positive feelings and stress relief. I CAN create my home as a community to which we all make a difference, authentically contributing and connecting with one another as a family and as my child gets older I CAN do family activities that include participating in and giving back to the community.

WE CAN ALL parent with more attention to the Vital Five™ and with focused intention of creating the future WE envision for our children. What do YOU envision for your child? What change can YOU make today?

Wishing peace and strength to those who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary,

– Galit Birk, PhD


  1. KAthy

    What a great article!!! So very true how we are in a new normal. I believe parenting has a lot to do this this, so thanks for sharing!

  2. Mindy

    In trying to turn this terrible tragedy into some kind of a positive, I think all of the ideas listed here are great reminders of how to live a fully present life, be a fully present parent and teach your children the same philosophy. Unfortunately, we can’t prevent all tragedy but we can savor the life we have with those we love while we have it.

  3. I indeed cherish every day the gift that my children and my grandchildren are, and the gift of life itself. But how do we remember to practice this as a way of life? This is the challenge, the creation of a structure through which we will remind ourselves daily to focus on what we appreciate, value and cherish, and not only when bad things happen.The practice of daily appreciations is a valuable ritual that can help with this. As we’re sitting at the dinner table, for example, we can take turns going around the table sharing what we appreciate about one another, about our day and about ourselves. So it might go like this: What I appreciate about mom is…What I appreciate about dad is… What I appreciate about my sibling is…What I appreciate about my day is…What I appreciate about myself is…When we practice this daily, it eventually becomes a habit that helps us focus on what’s good in our life. As a result, we feel happier and overall more connected to ourselves and others…Creating Rituals is really a great way of transferring to future generations what we value and what matters! Blessings, T

  4. Jennifer

    Well said: a great reminder to focus our emotional and mental energy on things we can control – our own behavior and what we teach our children

  5. Cyndi McLellan

    Living in a world that seems out of our control we can often feel so powerless. Thanks for pointing us to important areas where we can impact the lives of children we love. Great article!