Here we are again. Another morning after tragedy…reeling from the unthinkable. I have not spent too much time looking at the coverage of the events that took place in Las Vegas. I do not wish to buy into the glorified media spin, and talk of heroes in the midst of terror. I saw people helping each other in the photos, read about the bravery people showed when the stayed with those who were hurt…suffering. And while those are the only glimmers of hope I can find amidst the horror, it still feels like it’s not enough.
The immense feeling of helplessness and anger I feel about the senseless policies that are currently in place, allowing semi automatic weapons and ammunition to be stockpiled, is overwhelming to say the least. Yet, here we are again.
My own children, who are 5 and not quite 2, are completely unaware of this, and rightfully so. A huge part of our grown-up responsibility to very young children is to carry the burden of grief and keep them feeling safe in a world where they might be anything but. This is one of the most excruciating parts of being a parent, and the one that keeps me awake for much longer than I should be at night.
How can children even begin to process the scary realities of this gun-loving culture they are being brought up in? I can barely process it myself. I do believe older children (7 and up) need, and benefit from, conversations about times of crisis. And if a young child happens to find out about the news, it is best to answer their questions with appropriate language and assure them that you will do your best to keep them safe. For an article about how to navigate those difficult conversations look here.
My mind keeps drifting to the conversations that swirl around these type of events. Aside from the reports speaking to the obvious need for gun control, the topic of mental health in particular is one that seems to always accompany these acts of violence, especially when they are carried out by a single individual. The outcry for gun control, however justified, is one that I hold little faith in changing. I’ve called my representatives, marched in the streets, argued my points online, signed petitions…but it all feels like yelling into the wind. And when mental health is being addressed, no one really speaks to the root of the issue, and it’s infuriating that the conversations we should be having aren’t happening…at least on a national level.
But…what if we changed the cultural narrative about mental health from the very start? What if we made space for babies (yes, babies!) and young children, boys especially, to feel the full extent of their feelings without shaming, invalidating, distracting, or worse, punishing them? What if the ideas we hold about what makes someone strong are challenged? What if we start to lean in to our own discomfort about hearing children cry, or get angry, and gently push ourselves to connect instead of disconnect in those moments?
What if we tell them things like “I hear you” and “this is hard” and “I will stay with you until you feel better” and most importantly “I love you” when they are upset? How will children learn to empathize with others if it is not modeled for them? How will they learn to view their strong feelings as “visitors” who come and go? And how will they learn to cope with, and manage these big feelings without practicing the skill of doing so as they grow up?
We HAVE to start talking about feelings from the get go…and modeling for children how to deal with upset, conflict, disagreement and sadness. We need to make and hold space for their outpourings, not ask for them to hold it all in. We need to empathize with their little hearts when they are upset, and show them that they are lovable and capable of getting through tough times. We need to say things as seemingly obvious as “everybody cries” and “it’s okay to cry.” We need to nurture the humanity in them, the threads that connect us all. Boys receive so many misinformed messages about toughness, strength, manhood and masculinity through the media they consume and the expectations that are placed on them by their peers, families and even teachers.
This pernicious and repressive collective attitude is creating an environment where boys grow into men who have no idea how to express anger, frustration, sadness and grief in any kind of healthy way. They are disconnected from their own emotional lives, and from the emotional lives of others. They are unable to even articulate why they are so angry. Empathy is not nurtured in them and therefore absent from their thinking. It is not just damaging…it is dangerous.
It is a deeply ingrained problem that has such momentum, but we CAN, and should start turning it around and going the other way.
I am lucky to work in an environment where children are given tools, and language to support their emotional literacy, and strengthen their abilities to solve conflicts without force. But I think about the world of boys out there who are not being given the same opportunities and my heart breaks knowing that something so simple could change so much. I want for our hurting world to heal, for our voices to be heard, and for our children to feel safe and seen for who they are…we have to start somewhere.
“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”