On September 11, 2001, I got a call from my daughter, concerned about a plane that seemed to have gone astray into the World Trade Center. Within a short while we all learned that the news was about a planned attack. The inexplicable. How do we explain this to our children?
The news was frightening, tragic, disturbing, and traumatizing. Worst of all, I later heard that people, including young children, had witnessed the replay of the video on the news numerous times. That was a mistake.
How Trauma Starts
Research shows that, of the five senses, people are predominantly visual. For example, babies born visually handicapped, if not given special training, have a lower statistical probability of coping in life than those born deaf. The right hemisphere of the brain is available from birth to receive information and it includes receiving visual images. The left hemisphere kicks in at about 12 months and begins to learn how to explain in words the meanings gleaned from those visual images.
Trauma is predominantly a visual problem although as any war veteran will tell you, the other senses most certainly are involved.
Even without seeing the image of the planes going into the towers, humans will automatically create mental images to fit the words and those images can be traumatic. That is the essence of childhood nightmares, especially repeating nightmares: The child creates the images and is now afraid of them. The images carry some meaning for the child that he may or may not be able to explain.
We are now faced with a new tragedy that took place in Connecticut and I am hoping that your school-age children are totally unaware of it. There is no need to explain it to them if they have not yet heard about it. Part of parenthood is knowing what to shelter children from and what not to. They need to be sheltered from this.
How Should Parents Do Damage Control?
What if they have already overheard grownups talking? How do you explain it?
In order to avoid a child automatically creating frightening mental images, it is best to do as little describing as possible. “Someone bad hurt some people and it is a sad thing,” would be sufficient. Since you really don’t know the details, it is perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know” when a child asks, “But how did they hurt them?” On the other hand, if the child heard in school that a shooter shot many children, then you are stuck with that fact and must deal with it.
Don’t assume that because a child is wild, sees a lot of violent TV, or is violent himself that it is perfectly okay for him to hear about more violence. His wildness may very well be a way he is coping with something he actually can’t handle emotionally. He should be exposed to less of it going forward, not more.
It is at this point that you must tell your child that someone was mentally ill and this sort of thing will not happen to him. This is the main message he needs to hear because this news is frightening no matter how much bravado he puts on.
Evil or Mentally Ill?
Teenagers, on the other hand, can’t be shielded from life, nor should they be. They are on the brink of independence and must be armed with information and logic to handle the difficulties they will encounter. Pretending evil and tragedy do not exist will not serve them at all. However, this does not mean immersion in evil or tragedy.
On September 11, 2001, I made a point of not watching the video replays, myself. There is nothing good that can come from immersing oneself in evil. Onlookers to evil and tragedy may eventually become desensitized to pain. While that is an immediate coping mechanism for unbearable pain, desensitization should not be a life goal.
So where is that balance between putting topics about evil and tragedy on the table and too much focus on them?
If we return for a moment to the story of how the brain develops, it becomes clear that as children emerge from infancy, they start to try to make meaning out of life. It is hardwired into us to create meaning out of disparate bits of information. That process gives us a sense – however false that may be – of being somewhat in control of our lives.
That sense of control is a powerful tool in fighting the depression that comes from helplessness in an untenable situation.
For that reason, people get a sense of comfort in making up plausible explanations of events even if there is no way of knowing their accuracy or even if they are wrong. One way that people have of comforting themselves in the face of cruel and inexplicable behavior on the part of others is to say those others were crazy.
Interestingly enough, “craziness” is in the eye of the beholder. Right now there is an uproar in the mental health community because many psychiatrists and other practitioners are opposed to the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders due to its weak basis in science.
Nevertheless, most people would call the shooter in Connecticut crazy. Although this term doesn’t explain how a person could act this way, it is an all-encompassing way of dismissing what we don’t understand. For most people, it is probably satisfactory and if it gives you and your child some sense of at least categorizing that which we don’t understand, it is useful.
A more fruitful approach for a teen might be to classify this person’s behavior as “evil.” We can understand evil as something that humans have the capacity to perpetrate because God created us with the ability to choose it or refuse it. This is fruitful because it makes room for a discussion about “choice.” Children, especially adolescents, make choices all the time, many of which can border on the forbidden.
Why the Concept of Evil Works Better Than Mental Illness for Teenagers
By bringing the discussion around to the topic of where people draw the line on doing what is forbidden, a wonderful thing happens: Suddenly, in a tragic world, we can see that we do have a measure of control for we have control over ourselves and our choices. To know that we would not make a particular choice, however aggrieved we were is to insert a little control into the chaos.
Where, for example, would that teenager draw the line if he were told that the class had “obtained” a copy of an upcoming test and he could take a look at it, too? If his school outlawed certain movies, would he comply given that no one would (probably) ever find out? What about other things to be found online?
Another discussion regarding choice might be about dealing with anger. From the news reports, it could be that the individual in question was unable to express his feelings in a healthy way, so he exploded. It is not shameful to feel rejected in school as may be the case with this individual nor is it shameful to be angry because of it or to let someone know that is how you feel. Use this news account to help empower children to tell someone how they feel when they are upset.
Another way to create a feeling of control amidst chaos is for people to reach out to help. Teens could be invited to weigh in on how they think they could help the community they live in and whether such help might ultimately prevent other tragedies. If school children did hear about the tragedy, this might be an opportunity for them to find some meaning, too: They could make cards for the remaining classmates and this is an activity that alert teachers may have already undertaken.
We don’t know why evil is periodically visited on us, but we are required to cope with it constructively and teach our children the same. My prayer is that we don’t see such things again for a long time.