Children, and Violent Events

The following is from a discussion on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of parents:

Marya1 is away this weekend, so she asked me to share my thoughts about dealing with events like yesterday’s school shooting (in Connecticut, USA). First, get some counseling time on your own restimulation about this news. We parents love our children mightily and feel quite vulnerable when we hear of children dying unexpectedly. We are in no more danger today than we were yesterday, but the feelings can be quite strong. You won’t be able to help your children with their fears until you are discharging your own.

Talking about bad news

In general, shield your children from newspaper photos of and TV broadcasts about violent events. They create or restimulate fear in all of us. If there’s bad news and your children have heard of it, their best chance of processing it is to be told about it by you. If you feel fascinated by the news and want updates, take that as a sign that you’ve got some fears to work on. If you must get updates, do it at times when your children aren’t present. You might choose to proactively and briefly talk about this event to a school-aged child (without details unless asked for) if you think the news is likely to reach her or him one way or another. The information is best delivered personally, with your thought and caring as the context, instead of with the more “impartial” reporting tone that usually comes with hurtful events. At times like this there is much talk of “evil,” as though there were a powerful force at work in humans to make this happen. Almost always, the perpetrator has clearly been the target of oppression and has spent years and years feeling isolated and like there was no one to turn to, no one to connect with. There were signals that help was needed, but no one read them or knew how to respond. Sometimes there is a physical illness or a history of abuse. A good human being has been left out of the circle of caring and health. No evil is at work. Distress is at work. Our children need this explanation from us, in very simple terms.

Taking action together

The talk of evil is hurtful and misleading and also restimulates a sense of powerlessness. We need to face and discharge any restimulated feeling of helplessness. We all, children and adults, have power to connect with one another, to build community, to reach out to people and build networks of support. We have the power to spark social and personal change around us. When this kind of tragedy happens, rather than believe the feelings of helplessness, it’s smart to discharge them. If your children are of school age and you let them know that a very sad event has happened, don’t leave it at that. Figure out, as a family, what you want to do in response. Light candles? Join others in remembrance? Say a prayer? Write a letter? Volunteer together to help people in your community who are isolated? Your children will have their own ideas of how they want to respond. Listen. Act together in your family. Care together.

Special time

Finally, if your children have internalized fear because of what they’ve seen or heard, or because of how adults around them are talking and sounding, do more special time.2 They can’t discharge the distress until they feel close to you, and special time fosters closeness and safety. Don’t worry if it’s wild, physical, and full of laughter. That promotes the discharge of lighter fears and also prepares the way for the discharge of heavier fear. Expect that children’s feelings about this event are more likely to come up via a pretext—they’re angry at you for not drying their soccer shirt in time for the practice, or you’ve put too much peanut butter on their toast. When big events occur that don’t make sense to a mind made for love, cooperation, and respect, the feelings are often best discharged with a focus on the tiny and safe disappointments and irritations of every day. Don’t ask, “Are you thinking about those children?” in the middle of your child’s attempt to discharge. Let the crying, tantrum, or discharge of fear be about the small thing that just happened. If your child needs to talk about the scary event, he or she will likely bring it up when it becomes safe enough. We are as safe as our loving relationships, and the frequent opportunity to discharge and then think well, can make us. It’s good to be part of this caring and thoughtful Community. My twelve-year-old granddaughter was spending the weekend with my husband and me, so it fell to us, in consultation with our daughter, to tell her about the shooting. I still needed to discharge more about it, but I was able to be relaxed around my granddaughter and listen to her. Her first sentiment was sadness for the man who did the shooting. Off and on, all weekend, she pondered and talked about how this could have happened, and wanted to cuddle, cuddle, cuddle. My husband, also an RCer, is chair of the Board of Education. During the weekend he and the superintendent of schools thought together about strategies for how teachers could help students here. My husband sent the superintendent Patty’s (non-RC) article about helping children through shocking events, and she sent it on to others. He kept emphasizing that the teachers and staff needed time to be listened to, so they could be relaxed around the children. In an interview with the local paper, he was quoted as saying, “In reality, we are no less safe than we were last Thursday,” which came right out of Patty’s posting. I decided not to tell my six-year-old Jewish son about the shooting. My decision was based primarily on the fact that my family has been facing some challenges recently. Holding out benign reality for myself and my son seems to be the most important and useful contradiction3 at this time, particularly for us as Jews.I checked in with my son’s teacher after school on Monday to find out what, if anything, had come up in the classroom. The teacher said that the topic had not come up in class during the school day. (Obviously, she had no guarantees about what had happened at recess or in other social contacts among students.) I told her I had decided not to tell my son. However, I asked that if the shooting was raised in the class, she let us parents know so that we could follow up at home. (The school had advised the teachers not to bring it up and if it was brought up to just answer the question being asked and not do more than that.)I myself have been discharging about the event (and about the Holocaust). As a Jewish woman, it is important for me to discharge first. “Scared active” behavior runs pretty4 much all the time with me. I run to do and “fix” things rather than just notice that my fear is being triggered. It’s okay for me to err on the side of not acting “in time,” as opposed to acting out of fear and urgency. I feel extreme pressure as a parent to get it “right” in “crisis moments.” I have to remind myself that the day-in-day-out relationship with my son is what matters. That he can tell5 he has me, that he knows discharge is welcome, and that he usually shows me, in some way or another, what he is “working on,” are what matter. I’m weighing different options and making the best decision I can for my family. Other families will do that, too, and it will look different. Thanks, Patty, for your thoughtful guide to how we can approach this event with our children. I found the part about taking a stand against our own feelings of powerlessness to be especially useful. After two Co-Counseling sessions on what a powerful response might look like for me, I decided I would make contact with the teachers at my son’s school. I will check in with them about how they are doing with the news, tell them how I handled it with my son, and offer to listen to them as they “process” their own reaction and think through handling the news with the children at school. I have no idea how they will respond, but this is a good first step against my powerlessness. I hope it will also open the door to a closer relationship with them, as well as contradict the isolation they are probably feeling as they deal with this news in the school setting. I will let my son know what I did. I will also ask him if there is anything he would like to do in response to the shooting. We are living in a time of major global upheaval. We are living in an oppressive society that is crumbling because of its own contradictions. As a result, hard things have happened and will continue to happen. Violence, in its many forms, has huge momentum and will probably get worse before it gets better. While we can to some extent “shield” young people and ourselves from reports about these shootings (and from becoming addicted to the reporting of violence in general), no one today can actually be shielded from violence or from knowing about it. This is hard to look at. It restimulates our early material,6 including our feelings of not being able to think, take a stand, and build a rational society. We do need to stay close and connected. We do need to face hard material and discharge. We also need to fight for accurate perspectives about the irrationalities of society and share these perspectives with as many people as possible. It is true that the shooter was a very hurt young man; he was also a victim and an agent of the violent patterns that are oppressing us all. Instead of individual “evil,” we need to talk about organized irrationality. The problem is systemic. We can communicate that there are humans (some of whom use the tools of Re-evaluation Counseling) who are doing their best to end violence, who are committed to building a rational society in which humans do not harm humans. It would be interesting to have discussions and listening projects, with people of all ages, on the topics of “How do we end violence?” “What would a world without humans harming humans look like?”

(Present Time 171, April 2013)


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Last modified: 2017-05-31 15:31:32-07