"I'm grateful we are safe."
This was fifteen-year-old Ian's response when asked to share something for which he was grateful during his family's Thanksgiving meal; a response that left Ian's parents somewhat surprised.
Ian was 12 on December 14, 2012 when 20 first graders and six educators were murdered in his hometown of Newtown, CT.
During a post-Thanksgiving gathering, Chris, a student at Newtown High School at the time of the shooting shared his post-college plans. He described his hopes of entering the gaming industry, then pensively added as if it was a natural segue, "but I'm worried about all the gun violence in the world."
Several parents in Newtown have expressed concern about the long-term effects on young people not necessarily directly impacted by violence, but on the periphery. How has their close proximity to a horrendous event impacted their perception of the world? What about their social and emotional health, their relationships? While some parents have shied away from the subject for fear of igniting anxiety where none was visible, many are now recognizing that indeed, their children were and are struggling after all.
"If you're a Newtown resident and Sandy Hook has not impacted your life then I question you as a person," fifteen year old Jack remarked. "For the rest of my life people will ask me where I'm from and when I respond that I'm from Newtown, I just hope that their response won't always be [a tense] 'oh'. "
A number of local teens are finding that they are reluctant to venture far from home be it for college or travel. Others, younger, have now matured to where they are able to fully absorb the magnitude of what happened; an awareness that carries with it a complexity of fears and anxieties. Additionally, while trying to help their children come to terms with what happened here in Newtown, parents have to help them cope with other ubiquitous and random acts of gun violence throughout the world. Parents in disadvantaged urban communities where shootings are grossly commonplace yet rarely publicized, are no strangers to this stress. Now children and teens in San Bernardino, California; Roseburg, Oregon, Paris, France, Colorado Springs, Colorado and Charleston, South Carolina (and that's just in the last six months) will be faced with similar challenges.
Indeed, there is little question that events subsequent to Sandy Hook deeply impact Newtown children.
"While my son was certainly rocked by Sandy Hook," Diane, a Newtown parent of two teens shared, "he was even more devastated just a few months later when a local middle schooler took his own life."
"I don't think," Diane continued, "his reaction would have been quite so extreme had he resided in a community that had not suffered such a significant shock."
It is unsurprising that the first question renowned trauma specialist, Dr. Bruce Perry, received during a recent visit to our community was from a Newtown parent declaring that she was "worried about our kids." Dr. Perry was here for a community breakfast sponsored by The Ana Grace Project, which works to promote love, connection and community for families, and was formed by the parents of Ana Grace Marquez Greene, one of the first graders killed in the Sandy Hook school.
"What does the future look like for these kids?" the parent queried.
The answers are complex and of course, relative, however there is, according to Dr. Perry, one common denominator: relationships are the agent of change and the more healthy relationships present in a child's life, the more protected that child will be.
"The shootings immediately changed my perspective on life and family" shared Lauren, a Newtown resident who was 13 at the time of the shootings. "I began to realize how much I loved my family."
Nevertheless, Lauren has seen the impact on her peers. While many forged closer bonds, others have become disconnected as they continue to struggle with emotions regarding the shooting.
"Most therapeutic changes happen outside therapy."
Dr. Bruce Perry
Even when nourishing relationships are abundant, the extremity and regularity of gun violence is hard for anyone, let alone children and teens, to process.
"This is where we are at," Annie, a Newtown parent expounded, "kids are having recurring nightmares and insomnia; they are afraid of open spaces and they are formulating 'exit plans' in their heads when going to the movies or other public events. They are using good strategies to cope but still, it can be heartbreaking to see them so guarded at such a young age."
When children, or anyone for that matter, are not able to carefully and intentionally address their emotions, their brain will inevitably travel that road sooner or later - frequently in the form of anxiety, depression, substance abuse or other pernicious roads.
"12/14 helped me understand that talking through emotions is one of the most important things to do in life,"
Lauren, age 16, Newtown CT.
Heather Egeland attended Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Heather was present at the school on April 20th, 1999, the day 13 people were killed and over 20 injured. Following the shooting Heather and another student started The Rebels Project, which strives to offer support to anyone affected by a senseless tragedy.
Over the years, Heather has endured profound survivor's guilt and feelings of isolation.
"Many of the kids who were absent that day have the same 'what if' side effects as those who were there," Heather told me. "Sometimes they are more intense because they only have their imagination to rely on."
The feelings of isolation only intensified when Heather would squelch the urge to share her perspective if conversations turned toward the shooting, but she did not want to draw attention to herself. "The people having the conversation had no idea of the internal struggle I was experiencing."
We are teenagers... a lot of us don't share what we are feeling with others."
Jack, Newtown High School
"Expect to be blindsided," Heather continued. "You'll be going about your day, and suddenly someone will mention it, and they impact will be enormous. The level of impact will probably vary...don't get down on yourself for the times when it is more powerful because too many factors contribute to your reaction than you can possibly imagine,"
Helping kids to re-focus through open- mindedness, kindness, empathy and tolerance, can be difficult but essential in helping them manage their inner turmoil.
Kids now coming to grips with the magnitude of what happened at Sandy Hook are also finding themselves angry. Compelled to "do something," they are channeling their anger into action
"I feel a certain amount of anger now when hearing about other mass shootings on the news," remarked Lauren. "I know how the people in that community are feeling and it hurts me to know that they have to feel that way... The fact that there are still people out there being hurt and killed because our government has yet to take action on mental health and gun laws is not okay with me."
Jack's perspective on life changed significantly after the Sandy Hook shootings.
"I went from being a clueless middle schooler to actually caring about what was going on in the world. I became hooked on watching the news. It's different when you see someone you know appear on live television because you feel a connection towards them."
Jack went on to compare the number of people killed by terrorists in this country to those killed by gun violence - an awareness it's doubtful he would possess were he not a child of Newtown. Nonetheless, Jack believes his feelings on the issue would be the same regardless of where he lived:
"Something needs to change, but I believe it doesn't start with the guns but the people who make the laws themselves. "
After leaving my Facebook page open on our family computer, I discovered my 16-year-old-son furiously typing a response to a post an old friend had made about gun control:
"This is Suzy's son; I saw this post when I came to use the computer. As a 16-year-old from Newtown this post frustrates me. No one is saying that gun control would stop a deeply disturbed person from hurting others, but that is not the point. The point is it might help prevent them from committing mass murder."
My son knows better than to hijack someone's wall, however the encountered post triggered an irrepressible polemic; one that gave me pause as I had not realized how deeply he had been affected by Sandy Hook and thus, how passionately he felt about this issue.
Outrage and zeal, is often fear in disguise and parents need to be aware of such trappings both in themselves and their children. A sense of powerlessness can all too easily morph into an uncontrolled fervor, particularly if fueled by a reckless and supercilious adult.
During a recent Donald Trump gathering in Raleigh, NC, a twelve year old girl opened up to Trump
""I'm scared, she declared. "What are you going to do to protect this country?"
"You're not going to be scared anymore. They're going to be scared" Trump told her. He went on to proclaim that we have to "attack stronger, tougher and smarter or it's never going to end."
Had this young girl had the opportunity to pose her question to Jens Stoltenberg who was the Prime Minister of Norway in 2011 when their country suffered a brutal mass killing, she would have taken home a more healing and brave message:
"We are still shocked but will never give up our values... our response is more openness, more humanity, more democracy."
It takes a supportive, mindful and compassionate adult to help channel anger constructively. Parents must attend to their own needs so they can then offer this gift to their children.
Children residing in communities rocked by violence are as individual as the myriad of tools available to help them. What works for some may be useless for others.
"Nobody really helped me get over Sandy Hook," shared Jack. Psychiatrists are a waste of time. I actually felt more discomfort talking to a random stranger about something they weren't a part of. How are they supposed to help me overcome what I've been through when they haven't been through it themselves? I had to man up. That's how I overcame what I was feeling."
Irrespective of one's individual coping strategies, the key is that they be utilized in the presence of an empathetic and caring community. As Dr. Perry asserts, "Relationships are the agent of change and the most powerful therapy is human love."
Kids and young adults need a place to vent -- to share their innermost feelings and worries and especially, to understand that they are far from alone. Frequently this is best accomplished in a peer to peer environment.
The sorrow felt among specific groups within a community such as emergency responders, teachers and victim families is occasionally soothed when specialized groups of peers -- usually those who have undergone similar experiences -- are brought to town. Unfortunately, this avenue is rarely considered when addressing how best to help a town's youth.
"Having a support system made up of people who understand has helped me more than I can explain. They help when you feel isolated, when you get blindsided, and when you don't understand your feelings."
Heather Egeland, Columbine High School
Catherine Galda's daughter was a second grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School the day of the shooting and is presently enjoying fifth grade in Newtown. Nevertheless, the past three years have been challenging. Catherine is a licensed clinical social worker and works as part of the recovery effort for the Newtown community. Though her clinical expertise has undoubtedly been helpful for herself, her family and others in Newtown, Catherine recognizes that the root of helping kids manage their feelings stems from a place of more depth and simplicity.
"While we can lament the past and innocence lost, what we have is now...and the opportunities that the present offers each us. What you do next matters. Choose intentionally with mindful purpose. Each day bring opportunity for connection, growth and change. Put down the screens, put out your hand, close your mouth and open your ears...and heart."
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