If polled, most parents would say it was their primary job to protect their children from harm. “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Don’t touch a hot stove.” “Don’t go off with a stranger.” These are common instructions offered from adults to young ones.
Responsible parents keep a watchful eye on those in their care. Until the past decade or so, that was sufficient. In recent years, a feeling of helplessness has overcome some. Sending your child to school in the morning didn’t fit into the worry category. In the wake of the most recent school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, it has become a present fear and a reminder that certain occurrences are beyond a parent’s control.
When shots rang out that Valentine’s Day afternoon, students were completing a day that ironically began with an affirmation, “Life supports me in every way possible.”
A series of disturbing pieces of information were revealed about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz who had been expelled from the school. It painted a picture of an emotionally disturbed young man whose adopted parents had died, and he was taken in by family friends who say they had no idea he was planning the demise of so many people. He was obsessed with guns and posted photos of himself on social media. He allegedly abused his former girlfriend and tormented animals. Rumors were that he was part of a militia/white supremacist group. The FBI had been aware of his postings, and he was still able to legally purchase as firearm known as an AR-15.
It was considered one of the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in recent history, including Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and Columbine. Sadly, many have become inured to the effects of regular reports of violence that can occur anytime, anywhere in the world.
An admission here: I am not a gun enthusiast. I have never held one, nor do I plan to. I have never lived with anyone who owned guns. I have a few friends who are responsible gun owners. One, who is a gun safety trainer, is my source for accurate, albeit, paradigm stretching information. When we have conversations, they are food for thought. He considers himself politically liberal and has attended all kinds of peace-related events, rallies and marches, so not everyone who carries a gun, carries right wing views.
I have a visceral response to the topic, so writing about this deadly attack has been challenging. Even though what happens anywhere in the world ultimately impacts all of us, this is personal since my daughter-in-law is a teacher and I see many clients in my counseling practice who are students K-12.
My friend shared this bit of weaponry wisdom that is taught to those who take training.
The Gun Safety Rules Are:
- All guns are always loaded. (meaning, assume they are)
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
This tragedy is complex and multi-layered. To explain to children what happened takes fortitude and self-examination that may feel like more than most parents have the training to express. How can you be a calm source of comfort for children in your life who question how this could have happened? Some ideas that can be of assistance.
- Ask yourself about your stance on guns. Do you own them? If so, are they safely sequestered? What is the purpose of gun ownership in your case? How do you educate your children about their safe use?
- What are your thoughts about gun violence and how it impacts on children?
- What are your thoughts about mental illness and gun ownership? Statistically, more people with mental health diagnoses are victims of violence than they are perpetrators.
- Do you consider gun violence a public health crisis? The Centers for Disease Control advocates for that perspective.
- What do you teach your children about healthy expression of emotion? Anger is a normal human emotion that can be used as either a tool for positive change or a weapon for emotional or physical threat.
- How about the idea, “If you see something, say something”? If your child is aware of threats made, even seemingly in jest, they are to be taken seriously. If someone posts photos or words that indicate a desire to do harm, it is important to tell a trusted adult. Second guessing is no comfort when lives are in the balance.
- Does your child isolate or reach out to socialize with others? Are they aware of other children who are ostracized or bullied? Are they in the role of perpetrator or victim of bullying?
- Be a good example of healthy communication. Model cooperation, compassion and empathy. Remain open to hearing your child’s concerns about school, self-worth and socialization.
Recently, I was speaking with an administrator of a local high school in a community with a pervasive gun culture. I asked what the environment was like for his students. The teachers assured them that to the best of their ability, they would look out for their wellbeing. Their school utilizes the ALICE system that is meant to protect and empower the children and teens. The acronym is meant to reflect intervention on the part of teachers and students and has been proven to have positive impact.
A few days following the attack, I was sitting with a 12-year-old client who, in a matter of fact manner, outlined the drills his school did in anticipation of a gun-toting intruder. I held back tears as I told him that I was sorry they needed to go through this and that when I was his age, we had fire drills that had us line up for a short time in the parking lot. That was it. No fear of threat to life and limb as I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. No cowering in closets. No piling desks, bookshelves and chairs against doors. No heart racing terror that my friends and I wouldn’t make it home that day.