“I’m horrified to tell you I feel nothing,” a Chicago-area teen client told me Monday night after the Boulder shooting. “This kind of trauma feels so normal. Of course, we experience mass shootings again once we see the light at the end of Covid, and we are just cleaning up after an insurrection at the Capitol. Clearly, we are broken.”
What happens to us when trauma like this becomes normal? What happens when, like my client, we feel nothing when we hear about a mass shooting? What happens to our children when a report of a mass shooting seems as common as a weather report?
‘Profiling’ one another
I’m fortunate to be a therapist working with young people, many of them teenagers. And teenagers today are thoughtful, hopeful problem-solvers. I trust their sensibilities.
I also have the luxury of asking these kids what they think of these events. They tell me we can make the mistake of focusing on the shooter and his motive in the moment, as we tend to do after each of these events. “He was a quiet guy. Kept to himself.”
But most of my young clientele would suggest we are missing the broader point. We are not thinking “upstream” enough. They tell me they know the kids in their schools, right now, who might be the future shooter. Those kids are expressing hate and rage; full of self-loathing; or fearing the world, women or those different from themselves.
They unwittingly profile these kids.
I began my career in psychology in Chicago in 1999. It was in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, located a 40-mile drive from Boulder. We collectively thought we were profiling potential shooters among young people as well, by seeking out those who expressed an intent to kill, had access to firearms in the home or wore trench coats.
But many teenagers today instead seek out those kids who are disenfranchised, bullied or marginalized. They befriend them. The teens I know befriend these kids, and often make sure no child is left behind. They are tired of our failures to solve a problem that seems to affect schools more than any other spaces, and recognize on their way to class that they are quickly returning to the scenes of potential future crimes. They refuse to ignore our collective, violent reality.
We can arm every public space, and create a paramilitary society, thinking that a good guy with a gun is the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun.
But that, kids tell me, is the lazy argument. We are not just dealing with bad guys, but sad guys, hurt guys, guys who haven’t been taught to handle their feelings.
Making connections as prevention
As it turns out, the kids are better profilers than we are. Their thinking may very well fail to prevent the next mass shooting. Or the one following the next one.
But they are onto something. Forging a connection, they know as teenagers, is an inoculation from this type of violence. Connection is prevention.
So, if we are counting, at least in part, on our kids playing a significant role in changing this trend, it behooves us to listen to them. Here’s how to get the conversation started.
- Be honest with them. At most any age, our kids have access to so much data. They will assume a situation is even worse than they had imagined if we are not fully honest about the facts of a situation like this, as much as we know them.
- Ease their fears. We want to be sure we are not fostering anxiety about going to school beyond the pandemic. More and more, our kids are heading into the classroom, so point out that there are people working on ensuring their safety every day. They have enough variables to focus on in the school building. Fearing for their safety should not have to be among them.
- Solicit their thoughts. Kids want to be heard in situations like this and are traumatized by the news much as we are. They fare better emotionally when they are fully heard and allowed to express their thoughts and feelings. And, as noted above, your kids may very well have solutions in mind rooted in connection.