I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about what to write today. I enlisted the help of some friends (who also happen to be clinical psychologists) to figure out what we can do to help out. Making sense of a tragedy of this magnitude may be too big for our minds to grasp at this point, but maybe we can tackle it in small ways. One thing that these type of events cause is a feeling of helplessness and being out of control. Taking steps, albeit small ones, can help to reinstate tiny levels of security and well-being again. So through our grief and in our sorrow, let's start talking.
Talk with your kids about what happened
Gerard Wetzel of Secure Home HQ has a great website about keeping your loved ones safe, including tips for parents, caretakers, and educators on how to talk to kids about national tragedies. Click here for the link.
Please remember to keep the age of your child in mind. A three year old is much different than a six year old, who is different than a nine year old. Scotty, being such a sweet and earnest three year old, has no idea what happened. Limiting his exposure to news coverage and remaining calm and even-keeled is the best thing I can do as a parent. This type of subject is not appropriate for him, whereas a six year old might have seen the images on TV and understood something very scary happened. They may be scared, worried, or sad. Watch for changes in play, sleep, or appetite. Likewise, for an older child, this could be absolutely terrifying, as they are able to grasp the totality of this much more fully. Be patient, be aware, and be open with your kids.
Talk to your school about its own safety plan
Within a few hours of the news breaking in Sandy Hook, we received an email from Scotty's school detailing their safety plan for the children. This included locked gates, locked doors, panic buttons for the receptionists, and a security guard on property at all times.
While it was reassuring, I also recognize there is no such thing as 100% safety. We, as parents, drop our children off at school each morning under the illusion that they will be safe and well-cared for. There is no thing more terrifying than letting go of your child, and this morning, I had an especially hard time letting Scotty go. If you have any concerns about the safe guards that are in place at your child's school, now is the time to talk with the administration about it. In Gavin DeBecker's book "The Gift of Fear," he provides a comprehensive list of questions to ask school officials. Everything from what time the doors lock to who is granted access, this list is a great place to start.
Talk to your elected officials about what needs to change
This is a hot-button issue with people on both sides of the fence. Regardless of your stance on the Second Amendment, I think we'd all agree: something needs to change. Period. What happened on Friday simply cannot happen again. Twenty young lives and six committed educators lost their lives in an act of rage. We as a country simply cannot condone this anymore. As one person on Twitter wrote, "One guy TRIES to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport, but 31 shootings later and nothing changes?"
Nicholas Kristof, author of a popular column in the NY Times, wrote a moving piece of what needs to change in this country - and do we have the courage to stop it? Read the complete article here. If banning guns in this country is not an option, than what can we do to stop this public health crisis? Too many young lives are being lost in these senseless acts. Let's talk to policymakers, other countries, and each other to find a solution.
Talk to each other about mental health issues
This one comes more naturally for me, as it was my past profession, but this country needs to start taking mental health more seriously. Usually the first thing slashed when budget cuts arise or because the stigma of illness is too shameful to discuss, mental health concerns are swept under the rug. The Anarchrist Soccer Mom wrote a chilling blog entry that's getting quite a bit of buzz about what it's like raising a mentally ill son. Read it here. The fear, the uncertainty, and the not knowing - all of these things I have seen in practice from parents who are scared to death and completely overwhelmed by their child's behavior. While this may surprise some people, clinicians and parents of these children know all too well what the warning signs are. In an excellent piece by the NY Times this summer, Jennifer Kahn explores some of the questions and challenges that arise when raising and treating a child with callous, unemotional personality in her article, "Can You Call a 9-year old a Psychopath?" Read it here.
(I am slightly hesitant to share that last link, mainly because I don't want everyone to suddenly diagnose their children with psychopathic personality traits. Please read it with a careful eye and a clinical lens.)
The fact is, if you know of someone that displays any of these qualities, help is available. If you think you know someone that is capable of serious violence, reach out to them or their loved ones. If you want to talk with a mental health professional for more information, you can find someone in your area by clicking here. And for God's sake, if you are worried about anyone in your home, LOCK UP YOUR GUNS.
There is so much confusion about mental health in this country, and it was on display during the extensive news coverage. One psychologist went on CNN and reported that people living with Asperger's Syndrome are prone to violent outbursts. This is a gross overestimation of a misunderstood disorder. To read more about Asperger's Syndrome and its characteristics, click here.
Talk to your loved ones about the good that still exists in this world
It's the holiday season and if you don't feel like celebrating, that's okay. We have all experienced a great loss and have been traumatized. But through this unimaginable horror, don't lose sight of the good. Within hours of the shootings, twenty-six Christmas trees had materialized near the school. The memorial for the victims is growing and love and support from the rest of the world is pouring in. We can take this time to reflect on our own lives, hug our children, thank their teachers, and try to make an effort to find the good in this unspeakable tragedy.
I found a lot of comfort looking through these stories, and I encourage you to do the same. All is not lost. One man committed one horrific act that touched a nation's conscious. We are all changed as a result of Friday's events, but we do not need to be changed for the worse. We can pull through this to make sure it never happens again. We can give meaning to these children's lives by honoring them, remembering them, and protecting our own.
Get educated. Get motivated. Become part of the solution.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all those in Newtown, CT. May you find peace in the days ahead. --KSB