Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

For Parents Suffering from the Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary

"Dr. Laura... I'm finding myself unable to focus on being present with my children, suffering from horrible headaches, trouble falling asleep and just completely disturbed as a mother in this country. How can we as parents cope with our own emotions over this tragedy?" - Michelle

"Don't be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward." - Amma

How can any of us sleep, when those images haunt us? The shining face of a six year old who is no more. The anguished parent, who could be us. The terror that we can't keep our children safe. The sudden, devastating realization that we can't control when death will come, for ourselves or for our children.

Naturally, we're traumatized. How can we cope with our own overwhelming emotions? How can we heal?

1. Honor your grief. If you aren't feeling grief, it's almost certainly because you're trying to stuff it down. But that doesn't work -- those feelings we fend off get pushed out of consciousness, where they burst out, uncontrolled. Instead, find opportunities to cry.  You're not being self indulgent, and you're not creating more bad feelings. Once you don't have more tears to cry, you'll stop crying. In the meantime, let the healing tears flow.

Is it okay for your child to see you cry? Yes. Even if your child doesn't know about the tragedy, you can explain, "Sometimes our hearts have tears that need to be cried...We don't even need to know why...Tears always clean out our sadnesses and heal us....they open our hearts....I'm okay, I just needed to cry."

2. Treasure your child. Of course your child is more important to you than life itself. But all of us forget that, in the crush of daily struggles. Every parent who can't put their child to bed tonight knows that any trouble their child gave them was nothing compared to the love between them.  Honor those parents by renewing your commitment to cherish your child. Let this tragedy inspire you to see things from your child's perspective, to remember that she's just a child who is doing her best, to stay calm and kind while guiding and teaching her.

3. Advocate for compassionate parenting.  Yes, someone who murders a roomful of children is by definition mentally ill. But most people with mental challenges never become violent. Much more important is the fact that the shooter was enraged.  Where did that rage come from?

No baby is born a murderer. All humans are born with a hand of genetic cards that we can help them learn to manage. What makes the difference? Empathy. When kids feel understood, that we're on their side, they stay connected and they're open to our influence. That's true even for difficult kids; in fact, it's more true for those kids, because they're more at risk.

I'm not blaming the parents, who faced the heroic task of raising a child with special challenges in a culture that doesn't support parents. It's certainly conceivable, given his developmental challenges, that this young man had been bullied in school. We know he was socially isolated, which is in itself a risk factor. And his parents were probably given conventional parenting advice to punish their child to control his behavior. But research shows that punishment, particularly with strong-willed kids or children who have suffered emotional injury, doesn't encourage cooperation. It creates anger, and makes it more likely that the child will lash out. Adults who act out violently virtually always have a history of lashing out as children -- and of not getting the help they needed to heal those angry emotions.

We as a society are failing parents when we advocate punishment. Instead, we need to give the parents of challenging kids extra support so they can set limits with empathy.  That's hard, because it requires parents to regulate their emotions, but it teaches kids self-discipline, helps them learn to manage their feelings and behavior, and keeps them connected.  We know which teens are most likely to commit a violent act: the ones who aren't close to at least one adult.

4. Empower yourself against fear.  You can't, in fact, keep your child from death. But you can take action to protect her as much as possible. Instead of letting anxiety gnaw away at you, use your worry as fuel for action.  Be sure your child's school and after-school program have safety procedures in place, that your babysitter knows how to handle emergencies, that your child knows how to handle emergencies.

But don't stop there. Research shows that taking positive action to make the world a better place helps us cope.  Honor the memory of the children we've lost by pledging Never Again. Join with other parents to demand better mental health funding and a ban on assault weapons. Be an advocate for gentle parenting rather than punishment-based parenting, since physical punishment teaches kids to solve problems with violence.  Be sure your school has a proven, effective anti-bullying curriculum in place. Bullying is a risk factor for kids, both worsening their emotional health and creating the potential that they'll lash out at a later time. We may never know why a shooter would target a classroom of young children, but given the statistics, it's entirely possible that he was bullied in kindergarten himself.

5. Nurture Yourself.  We've all had a devastating shock. It's natural to feel anxious. Turn off your TV, nurture yourself with tenderness, and let yourself grieve. If your anxiety is still getting in your way, make a plan to manage it. Move your body. Do some EFT(tapping your acupressure points to process emotion.) Vent to a friend, just breathing through your tears and fears and letting them go. Manage the upsetting thoughts in your mind with mindfulness practices: Listen to a meditation tape, focus on your heart, do some deep breathing.

There's a reason we're still upset. This is a dark night in which we find ourselves. Our deeper wisdom is asking us to take action, to bring some light. We can't undo this tragedy, but it can inspire us to make the world safer for all our children. Will you light your candle and step forward with me?



Related links:

Violent Rage Doesn't Just Begin at Age 20

How To Talk with Kids about the School Shooting


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