Tragedy A Time to Come Together

I just learned about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It is hard to know how to respond when something so tragic occurs. Events like this stir up many difficult feelings, such as confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. We asked ourselves, what should we do? How do we talk to our children about this?

What can schools do?

There are no simple answers, but I would like to share a few thoughts that may be of help. First of all, despite the all too frequent reports of school shootings, schools remain one of the safest environments for children. In terms of sheer numbers, many more children are harmed outside of school then in school. In terms of what schools need to do eliminate these types of tragedies, currently there is no effective way of predicting who is going to do something like this. Also, I heard a journalist who has covered school shootings say that there is little evidence that more security and zero tolerance policies have made much difference. What does seem to help is more resources, and more supports for children and their families.

What can parents say to their children?

Parents need to tell their children that they love them, and that they and the staff at the school are there to protect them. They should also tell their children that they want to hear any thoughts, worries, fears or concerns their children may be having. After that they just need to just listen, to acknowledge whatever their children are thinking or feeling, and to let them know they are there for them. Listening and being there for your children are the most helpful things you can do. We cannot explain away our children's difficult feelings, or our own for that matter. But we can listen to and support each other.

What can we do as a community?

Again I do not have answer to this, but I would suggest that we do the same thing that we would do for our children. We can listen to each other, and support each other. A terrible event like this is alien, it is impossible to understand how someone can do this, and alienating, causing fear and distrust. The only antidote I know is connection.

Martin Luther King said after his home was fire-bombed and his children were threatened, 

The chain reaction of evil- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation…love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its
very nature, love creates and builds up.

We can connect more deeply, reach out to our neighbors and friends, and trust that in the end it will be our love and humanity that will heal us. 

For additional resources click on the resources below: 

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting 
Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting
A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope  

What is Mental Health

We often associate mental health with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, stress or trauma. But mental health is more then the absence of problems. Just correcting the things that go wrong does not tell us what we need to do to make things go right. The absence of problems doesn't help us decide on our goals, doesn't point us to what is good in life, doesn't guide us in how to raise our children or make our communities better. For this we need information on our capacities to face adversity, promote positive feelings, be productive, develop sustaining social relationships and find meaning and purpose. These capacities help us live our lives to the fullest, and are associated to what Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology, refers to as flourishing.

Symptoms of Flourishing

Below is a list of capacities that are associated to mental health and flourishing that I have compiled from a variety of sources:

  • Emotional awareness- knowing and understanding one's own feelings

  • Emotional self control- being able to manage one's own feelings

  • Empathy- being aware of how other people feel

  • Social skills-being able to have close, supportive relationships

  • Compassion- for self and others when when we and others cannot handle our lives perfectly

  • Forgiveness- once we are out of situations where we've been mistreated, being able to free ourselves from the prison of anger and resentment that this mistreatment has caused

  • Gratitude- appreciation for what we have

  • Stress tolerance- able to sit with a certain amount of stress

  • Future minded- able to postpone immediate gratification of short-term needs to achieve long range plans

  • Optimism- a belief in our ability to handle future events

  • Problem solving- ability to come up with effective solutions to new problems

  • Flexibility- being able to bring different skills and strategies to different situations

  • Autonomy- being guided by socially accepted internal standards and values

  • Social acceptance- tolerating and accepting other people even when they are different from ourselves

  • Purpose- having sustaining personal or spiritual beliefs that help us deal with the big questions of life, able to see ourselves as part of something bigger then ourselves

    This may not be a complete list, but I believe it is a good start for anyone wanting to live a life that is more then an absence of problems. If you want to be diagnosed as flourishing, cultivate these capacities!

    Until next time,