By: Carol Maxym, Ph.D.
We’re living in a violent world. Each time you log on to your computer, turn on the news, or check your social media feed there seems to be another devastating headline. Violence seems to be an inescapable and terrible fact of modern life.
Sometimes, you can’t help yourself thinking: another day, another shooting. I don’t mean to sound insensitive or callous, but it’s all in the data. Today is Thursday and the last mass shooting was a mere 5 days ago.
I’m not a political commentator or a politician. I have nothing to do with law enforcement. At this moment, I have no idea who the San Bernardino shooters were or what could have been their motive—if you can even use that word to describe an utterly ruthless, remorseless, and senseless act. I’m just a psychologist wondering about kids growing up in our increasingly violent world—the world where so many people harm and shoot each other on a daily basis.
I know that a lot of kids don’t pay much attention to the news, but social media and constant media coverage on multiple devices makes it difficult not to know or even see a word about the shooting in San Bernardino and the other most recent one on Saturday in Colorado Springs. And, there’s the Laquan McDonald shooting and the video controversy that took so long to be released. All around the world, there are numerous examples of violence that are so unpredictable in when, where, and exactly how they happened.
How is all this violence affecting our kids? Kids need stability, predictability, safety—the belief that their lives are mainly predictable, stable, and safe. Let’s think about what happens when kids can’t really believe those things in light of safety and stability being less and less a part of their physical and virtual everyday experiences.
There are metal detectors in schools and police in schools (although the police can get out of control in schools, too—that happened last month). I am not arguing against metal detectors or police in schools (though I could and would really like to). No, I am simply pointing out that our kids do not have the opportunity to feel really safe. If our schools need metal detectors and police, then it’s because the environment isn’t safe. However, we can’t keep them isolated either- putting up more and more defenses in every place they may or may not be.
At what point will it stop? Imagine metal detectors and police in a social services building, in hospitals, restaurants, movie theatres, in every building… increasing security will not necessarily make us feel safer and to some extent, it may even make us more anxious and worried.
We talk about keeping our kids safe. They wear helmets and protective gear for all sorts of activities. We are perhaps obsessed by safety—except we don’t [read can’t] provide it.
There’s been an unending debate about guns and gun violence. And politically there isn’t enough will to change the status quo. What happens if we change the frame of the issue and look at it differently? What if we see it as an issue that will affect the anxiety and depression levels of kids because they are always, in some way, being exposed to random (as in randomly chosen locations) acts of raging violence. What if we see it as effecting kids’ ability to be successful in school? To be trusting of their environment, the adults who make their world? To be able to function successfully as adults?
How has/will the constant din of violence affect our kids as they grow up? Well, we don’t really know. We don’t have much of a parallel in history to go by because war, terrible as it is, is different. We do know that there appears to be more anxiety in kids, more depression. Kids appear less able to regulate themselves emotionally. Kids appear to need to be taught to regulate their emotions by various “skill building” techniques. Why?
Why kids need to be taught to regulate emotions and their resulting behavior is an important question that I find no one is asking. So I am asking it here and now. Why? Does it have anything at all to do with the constant din of violence that pervades our world? With the media hype and re-double-hype of the violence? The media fostering and nurturing of fear and the unpredictability of any semblance of real safety? The tension between the focus on safety in helmets, car seats, gear and the lack of predictable safety from gun violence. I don’t know. I can say, yes, it makes sense to me—does it to you?
I don’t have focused concise answers to offer— although I wish I did. No, this is something that we need to begin seriously thinking about.