Explaining the Batman Massacre

As the horrific details of the movie theater shooting continue to pour in, parents everywhere struggle to figure out how to talk to their children about it. It would be great if news about that unspeakable tragedy could be completely contained and kept off the radar of our children. But with today’s 24/7 news cycle, the internet, and the natural human propensity to talk, talk, talk about the latest big story, it’s probably not going to happen. It’s likely that they may hear about it from someone.

But how do you explain such an event to a child? How can you talk about it in such a way that you reduce rather than increase their fears about the seeming randomness of violence these days? How can you make them feel a little bit safer in what can feel like a very scary world?

We don’t yet know what was going on in the mind of the 24 year-old man who walked into the movie theater dressed as The Joker and began his shooting rampage. But from what I have read it seems pretty clear that he was acting alone and was not a “terrorist,” although his actions clearly were terrorizing. He had no prior history of violence, social problems or brushes with the law. He was brilliant and stood out among his contemporaries as a young man who was on his way to adding value to the world of science. Which makes it even scarier, in a way.

It seems like his mind snapped, that he had developed a serious mental illness that had gone undiagnosed. Schizophrenia, which is one possibility, is a chronic, severe and disabling brain disorder that usually begins in the teens or young adult years.

It often develops slowly over months or years and can be difficult to spot or diagnose in the early stages. Feelings of irritability and difficulty concentrating and sleeping may be the first symptoms to appear. As the illness progresses, many more serious symptoms emerge. These can include problems with thinking, emotions, and behavior. Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations – hearing or seeing things that are not there
  • Bizarre behaviors
  • Lack of emotion
  • Problems paying attention
  • Delusions – having strongly held beliefs that are not real
  • Inability to think or converse normally due to thoughts that “jump” randomly between different topics
  • Social isolation

In paranoid schizophrenia, intense feelings of anxiety, anger and a belief that others are out to hurt you are also common.

We don’t as yet know if this young man is schizophrenic. We don’t know what drove him to behave in such a way. But something did and kids need to have someone give them some kind of explanation.

Older children can be taught the basics of mental illness. They can be told that there are diseases of the mind that can rob a person of their ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They can be helped to understand that mental illness does not favor one group over another and that it can and does touch the lives of millions of families. That being said they also need to understand that a situation like the one that occured in Colorado is extremely rare.

When talking to younger children about a mental illness-related tragedy that has touched their world I try to find a metaphor that makes sense and that they can understand. For example, in this case you could explain that the man’s brain had become very sick and that it had caused him to do things that he wouldn’t have done if he were okay.

I have compared a person’s “going crazy” (if that is truly the case) and hurting others as being kind of like a dog who gets rabies. The rabies damages the dog’s brain and makes it impossible for him to behave like his normal self. He might attack and hurt his owner even though he would never ever do that if he didn’t have the disease.

Using a metaphor like this helps children to understand that this kind of behavior has a logical explanation and as a result, helps to reduce their anxiety. It’s important to talk about how rare this kind of thing is and how very unlikely it is that anything like this will ever happen to them or to you.

In order to further reduce their anxiety, it’s also critical to limit the exposure young children get to news footage of these kinds of events. They can be easily traumatized by hearing the frightening details and viewing the violent images on T.V. and other media. And it should go without saying that movies like The Rise of the Dark Knight are totally INAPPROPRIATE for kids, even younger teens.


*As parents you should also know that up to 50% of children and adolescents with mental illness do not get treatment of any kind. It’s time to get the word out that mental illness is just as real and just as serious as cancer or heart disease, and requires the same kind of attention and medical treatment.




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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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