Perhaps the only silver lining to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is emerging conversations and, hopefully, policy changes for gun control and mental illness. Both are in dire need of a relook and a revision, even though neither is likely to eradicate mass shootings.
But what about emotional illness, which affects so many more of us? Children are not born with emotional problems, which are rooted in feeling isolated, unimportant, misunderstood, victimized, holier than thou, etc. Children with emotional problems are the victims of the influence of parents, teachers, peers—anyone who is critical in the daily life of the child. Most of these problems can be healed through parenting.
Parents, wounded themselves in their pasts, unknowingly pass on their unexamined wounds to their children—wounds that come from perceptions of a child’s mind (“I’m not good enough”, “I can’t ever be who my parents expect”, “Nobody likes me“, I’m a trouble-maker”, etc.). These thoughts grow into beliefs that influence behavior if not understood and addressed.
The culprit? The same child rearing techniques we have been using from time immemorial—punishments, threats, isolation, bullying, name-calling, arbitrary consequences—all used to get children to do a parent’s bidding. These coercive techniques have left us with a society of the walking wounded. Yet we keep doing the same old thing expecting different results.
When the messages generate from outside the family, capable parents can help their children through difficult, even traumatic, situations. First parents must be able to interpret abhorrent behavior as a signal that the child is having a problem, not being a problem.
With that perceptual shift, parents are better able to acknowledge the pain their child is experiencing without belittling it or denying it. Once the child feels understood, problem-solving strategies can help empower the child.
This is a complicated process, one that requires self-reflection, healing, shifting the parenting mindset and learning new skills. But parents believe they should know how to raise their children. They don’t want to examine themselves, and they don’t want to “air their dirty laundry”.
As much as we need to raise the level of attention and care for our mentally ill, we need to take care of our children, our future, by reducing the stigma that parent education is for “bad” parents. Parents have become extremely sensitive to being blamed. It needs to be made loud and clear that no one is to blame but our parenting culture—the culture that tells us we’re supposed to know how to do it and do it alone, without help, sometimes without even one partner—much less a whole village.
As long as the parenting culture tells us to reward behavior we like and punish behavior we don’t, our children are vulnerable to mistaken identities. I am in no way suggesting that the parents of killers could have stopped the killings. I am suggesting that parent education available and taken advantage of by all could change our society dramatically.