(In collaboration with parenting strategist and licensed counselor, Tricia Ferrara, MA)
A lot of things are on my mind this week, but bubbling up to the surface is Sandy Hook’s anniversary, just hours away. I’ve managed to table my reaction regarding the public release of the 911 recordings (many news stations’ decision to not air them helped), but I’m a bit on edge amidst uncertainty over how the media is going to handle this very difficult and intimate memory in its retelling. The Associated Press’ decision to set up in Newtown has left me with mixed feelings, as I am sure it has others. Anyone following the news knows by now, that residents have requested that the media allow them to take in the day in privacy.
Before hearing that, I had been hopeful that the media would respect this request and refrain from deploying news trucks and reporters. Regardless, I have been, and still remain, anxious about what images will be shown on television; I could not watch any of the coverage last year when it happened; the radio broadcasts were barely manageable…
Like everyone else, it was too easy to put myself in those parents’ shoes, and to imagine my children in that scene. And a year later, I am in awe that these families, and this community, have managed to get up and participate in life, to do good things in the world and to stand together as an extended family. It is a beautiful way to honor those lost, and to honor the children, families and teachers that are very much alive today, filling Newtown with new, joyful memories. The people of Newtown have given each other the greatest gift possible in the aftermath of such tragedy: a future.
What follows below is a blog post written by Tricia Ferrara, author of Look Both Ways, a recently-released book that examines the deepening responsibility of raising children in a world marked by perpetual crisis, and that provides parents with a blueprint for connecting to, and guiding, children in an impactful way. I have chosen to post this here, because her website (and associated blog) is currently being transferred to a new host and is unavailable.
As you’ll read, by proxy to her profession, she has been following Sandy Hook and other shootings, and mental health issues and policies closely. Because her clients include tweens and teens, as well as parents, the question of how to prevent future acts of random violence is a constant line of conversation. After all, bullying, feelings of isolation, shame, loneliness… all of these come into play when evaluating emotional stability. And since kids don’t always talk openly about what they’re feeling, her first response is “quietly observe, then engage.”
No one knows the “why” of what happened a year ago tomorrow. No one can take away the grief, the horror and the senselessness. But if we can continue talking with experts, who understand child development and want to make an impact on mental health for people of all ages, that is a step in the right direction.
Before I get to Tricia’s thoughts, I wanted to share another link that I found helpful in planning ways to include my kids, and others, in honoring Sandy Hook.
Here are Tricia’s thoughts:
On Saturday, the nation will observe a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Newtown Massacre. Whether joining in with others, including President Obama and his family, or sharing that time quietly alone or with family, 9:30 a.m.’s arrival will leave an indelible mark on each of our days. There are no right words, no right actions, to change what happened on December 14, 2012. Nor can anyone of us outside of Newtown truly understand what the victims’ families, and the entire community, are feeling. Out of respect for this deeply private moment, we—the media included—must give all Newtown’s citizens the space and time to navigate this horrific anniversary, as requested. Though, after reading this article earlier today, I wonder…
Lives have been forever altered in Newtown, and my heart still aches today as it did when I first heard the news. We all know exactly where we were. It was a moment never to be forgotten.
So now it’s a year later, and clients, friends, even people I have just met who learn what my profession is—a licensed counselor and family strategist—have been asking me what I think about how the families, the kids and the community are doing. And, they ask me how health care professionals can do a better job taking care of young people. Because like most others, what they really want to know, is can we prevent these types of tragedies from happening? I want to say, “yes,” but the truth is, we are still trying to understand what brings a young person, with so much ahead of them, to this moment. It’s a question I am going to continue to think about and impact. I will continue to talk with parents, educators and kids, and more importantly to listen. Only by listening, can we learn and change.
The following is more of a clinical take, but as a mother, the best advice I can offer anyone who works with kids, is to pay attention. And if you see behavior that is concerning, seek out advice. A mother’s instinct is rarely wrong.
It used to be that being “happy,” “nice” or “positive,” and even “popular,” were strong enough qualities to make the difference in how kids navigated the tough spots associated with childhood. Think about how many conversations you had as a child, during which your parents bolstered you with kisses on the cheek and comforting, simple words like, “You know how you are inside, don’t let it get to you,” “They’re just jealous,” “She was just probably having a bad day” … All appropriate and welcome when the world seemed to be against you.
Things are different today. Kids have greater pressures, and greater chances of exposure (think tell-all social media posts and cell phone exchanges). Withstanding life’s ups and downs takes a whole new skill set—one that parents, caregivers and teachers are just beginning to wrap their heads around. No longer can we dismiss teens’ and even younger kids’ emotions with a simple hug or affectionate words. Or take the perspective that the issues haunting them are trivial, not real problems. Their world isn’t what our world was, or is.
Yes, there is predictability when it comes to “standard” issues that your kids will face. That’s the beauty of generational sharing, right? An adult can connect to a teen very easily with a simple retelling of something that happened in school, with a girl (or boy), on a test, with a parent… But in the digital age, the common story once shared between generations has changed.
Certainly, like when many of us were growing up, some kids are naturally more resilient than others. If that’s your kid, breathe a sigh of relief. But also take the time to understand what your child’s experience is. And, more importantly, how they feel about it. Because left unrecognized, resentful, misunderstood, anxious, and other emotions can lead to internal rage. And that unresolved rage can—and has—led too many young people to take revenge on the innocent.
Yes, I am talking about Sandy Hook. And Aurora. And Columbine. Virginia Tech…Finland. All horrific, sad moments where a young person lost control—of everything—and took actions that might have been prevented if the right people had been paying attention.
In 2012, Johns Hopkins expert, Gilda Ginsberg found that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. are affected by anxiety.
We have ignored learning how to foster mental health for too long. It is clear from decades of research that the gun blasts that we hear and see in the media are generations in the making. The answers are not found in what the killer had for breakfast or whom they spoke to over the weekend. Far from snapping, the gunmen are searching for a way to inflict pain and externalize their unresolved anger. They are almost always driven by extreme powerlessness. The ensuing violence is a disguise for their pain.
Adults are responsible for shaping the minds of our children. Parents are critical in providing a script for how to respond to the ups and downs in life, and so are caregivers and educators. Collectively, we are charged with leading by example—maintain a healthful balance in ourselves, and instilling balance and strong mental health in our children.
Knowing when to reach out and how to self-soothe will be a defining trait for our children. These abilities will determine their prospects for optimal mental health as they navigate the pressures of adulthood. What your kids need now, though, is to regain that sense of safety. To be shown, not just carelessly told, that they’re NOT helpless, not hopeless or isolated… They need to be treated with respect, not subjected to harsh punishment, and believed.
Kids today are exposed to a toxic brew of influences; old-school parenting tactics will never work to raise resilient youth in the 21st century. They are always in the crosshairs of being exploited. Whether corporations, crazy cultural expectations or classmates target them, the pain remains the same. Unresolved, it turns to rage, makes a mission and rarely looks back.
As parents, we don’t have all of the answers, but we have more to offer than we know. If we can stop the pain many of our children are feeling, we can change the story and stop this type of random violence.
Parents taking on the responsibility for their child’s mental health can start with a few areas:
• Strengthen child’s ability to regulate his/her emotions in the face of frustration or disappointment.
• Help children develop the language to share more difficult feelings.
• Help them experience “comforting” relationships and develop a sense of trust that it’s OK to share themselves with another when they are struggling. Developing this trust in others is the best defense against isolation.
• Finding ways to respond to a child’s sudden emotional chaos that demonstrate support, genuine caring and create a connection, rather than fear in your child.
We can all be part of a chapter in lives that will having meaning and make a difference.