Responding to School Violence: How to Move Forward with Your Family

By Elisabeth Wilkins

Ever since the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, I’ve been feeling out of control and ill at ease, and I suspect I’m not alone. There’s no way to go back and change the outcome of that terrible day. We can’t make those horrific, tragic events turn out any differently. At the bottom of it all is the knowledge that we can’t protect our kids from every dangerous thing out there in this world—and that terrifies me. So today, I’d like to talk about what we can do as parents.

Empathy, kindness and connection: they’re not the answer to all our problems—and I realize our problems are extremely complex—but without them, we are lost.

“You can’t control what anyone else does. You can only control your response,” Debbie Pincus says in many of her articles on Empowering Parents. Wise words that I know to be true.

So this past Saturday, my husband and I had the hardest conversation we’ve ever had with our nearly 10-year-old son.  We decided it was better to give him the correct information about the school shooting rather than allow him to hear rumors from other kids on the bus or on the playground. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it’s one that is up to each parent—every child, and every family, is different.

“I think it’s important when we’re talking to younger children about incidents like these that we’re honest with them,” advises Janet Lehman. “Encourage your child to ask questions and express his feelings and thoughts. Our kids need to know there are bad people in the world who do bad things. Keep it brief and then give them time to ask questions and voice their fears.”

Taking her advice to heart, we kept it short. We tried to reassure our son by saying that grown-ups were working hard to protect kids and to make sure it never happens again. And to the toughest question from our child—“Why did he do it?”—we responded as honestly as we could:  “No one knows for sure. He was mentally ill.”

Many debates have arisen since this incident, but I think something we can all agree on is the need for support for parents of mentally ill, defiant and potentially violent children and teens. There is a huge need for mental health and support services for both parents and kids. Again, we can’t control what people do, but we can control what we decide to advocate for in our country.

So how do we move forward as parents? “Rather than letting anxiety take you over, take action,” says Debbie Pincus. “Fight to prevent these horrific events by writing to local officials and standing up for what you believe. Maybe by doing this, we as a society can make some necessary changes. Action and being proactive will help you feel more control and therefore less anxious—and might result in change. This, in turn, will help our kids feel safe and protected.”

While we all have our own ways of addressing this publicly, I think one thing we can all do is start small at home. Our answer to this tragedy is in our everyday response. Do we let it define us by becoming fearful and giving in to negativity, or do we use this event to try to make things better than they are now? Not to magically wipe away what happened—unfortunately, that’s impossible—but to take a hard look at where we are  and try to improve the way we’re doing things in regards to mental health care and support for parents of defiant and potentially violent kids.

And here’s the truth: you’ve already done something proactive by arriving here at Empowering Parents. You’re taking some positive control by reading articles here to help change your kids’ difficult behavior, talking about your worries without fear of judgment, reading comments from other parents going through the same thing, and finding some potential solutions for your child’s behavior. As a mom myself, it’s hard to think of anything more important than raising my son to the best of my abilities. I know I can’t be a perfect parent, but I believe I’m a “good enough parent,” as James and Janet Lehman say—one who’s looking for answers and trying my best (sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not), just like everyone else.

That brings me back to Debbie Pincus’ advice to “control our response.”  Small acts of kindness are a good start—something that can help us restore the feeling of connection to others that seems to be sorely lacking in our society these days. Taking it a step further, what if we were to create a movement of kindness? Begin by doing something for your child—notice something good about them and express sincere admiration. Move outward and get your kids involved. Ask them for ideas. Their creativity and willingness to participate might surprise you. Buy a coffee for someone in line after you, shovel your neighbor’s walk, hug a parent who’s having a rough day or for whom this shooting incident has brought up feelings of grief. Send your child’s teacher a note saying, “I know this must be hard for you right now, too. Thank you for everything you do.” Reach out and form a support group for parents in your area who are struggling with their kids’ behavior. Find ways to connect.

I would like to end on this note: As Rob Parker, whose daughter Emilie died in the shooting on Friday said so eloquently, “My daughter would be one of the first ones to be standing and giving support to all the victims because that’s the kind of kid she is. She always had something kind to say about everybody. We find comfort reflecting on the incredible person Emilie was and how many lives she was able to touch.”

Empathy, kindness and connection: they’re not the answer to all our problems—and I realize our problems are extremely complex—but without them, we are lost.

What do you think? What needs to change, and how can we better support each other as parents? And what small acts of kindness would make a difference in your home or in your community?

About Elisabeth Wilkins

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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