The Sandy Hook massacre has us all terribly unsettled.
We are all trying to deal with it in our own way. Parents comfort their children; politicians debate gun control; First Responders deal with the shock and therapists, with the grief and distress.
As a psychologist, I find myself trying to process this young man's capacity to commit such a heinous crime. I keep wondering how his troubles could have been handled differently. I keep trying to wrap my mind around it all, so I can help others do the same.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the media discussing two other senseless murders, also at the hands of teens not much older than their victims. First, there was 17-year-old Austin Siggs, who is accused of killing 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in Colorado. Then, there were the two Saunders brothers, ages 15 and 17, charged in the murder of Autumn Pasquale, a 12-year-old who vanished while riding her bike in N.J. In both these cases, it was their mothers who turned them in after becoming aware of their sons' involvement in the crimes.
I raised the following questions:
- How can parents know when normal teen "acting out" is a preamble to something far more sinister?
- Is it our responsibility to expose our children's suspicious or malicious activity and turn them over to authorities? Or do we defend and protect them at all costs?
- Most important, are there things parents can — and should — do to avoid this dangerous trajectory?
Around the same time, the New York Times Magazine published a piece that raised other questions about extremely violent children. Is psychopathy (or sociopathy) a distinct neurological condition that can be identified early in life? If so, can preventative measures be taken to keep violent kids from becoming a danger to society? "Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits," Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University who studies extremely aggressive children, told the Times.
Some children may be hard to control, have ADHD and even display violent outbursts, but it's the coupling of rage reactions with a lack of empathy that separate psychopathy from more typical conduct disorders. The former are often smarter, more manipulative and calculating, but they experience little or no discomfort following their cruelty to others. Researchers hypothesize that psychopathic children may lack the mental hardware to connect to other people's feelings and may be more disconnected from their own.
For now, we still lack the diagnostic tools that accurately uncover biological or psychological seeds for psychopathy. As a result, we may never know the true source of Adam Lanza's behavior that forever put a Rockwell-like town on the mass murder map. But as we learn more about him, a picture is being drawn of a very troubled young man whose potential for violence was missed by his family, friends and others who knew him.
Is there anything we can do now to avoid tragedies like this in the future? As a psychologist and a parent, I believe there is. We can understand the role we must play in the moral development of our children. We can acknowledge when they fail to follow this developmental track and seek counsel when they — or we — need help to get back on course.
Here are ten tips to guide parents about the moral development of their children.
1) Whether there are neurological, genetic or psychological underpinnings to a child's aggressive behavior, it's important to keep in mind that children are not born murderers. No one goes from being a sweet child to a violent criminal without some warning signs along the way.
2) Children have in-born temperaments — some are more passive and calm, others more active and aggressive — but none are born with a built-in set of rules for how to behave in society. Manners, morals and ethics must be taught and it is the responsibility of parents to do so.
3) Learning right from wrong must start early — some say from the very beginning of a child's life. Setting firm limits is essential to moral development, especially as children enter the 'terrible twos,' and then again during adolescence. These are phases of development when limits are most often tested. But consistent rule-setting is important throughout a child's life.
4) Moral guidelines must be fostered not only in the family home, but at schools, among friends and during religious and extra-curricular activities. Unacceptable behavior needs to be clarified, along with appropriate and unambiguous consequences. While the age of the child and the severity of their actions may determine an adult's responsibility to report misbehaviors to authorities, any evidence of violence — or suggestion of its potential — should be brought out into the open.
5) Children's moral development is probably most influenced by the role models that surround them. Immoral behavior at home is internalized by children, no matter how strongly rules are enforced. "Do as I do" is how it works. Kids most often identify with their parents — but aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches and other authority figures also function as role models.
6) With moral lines so blurred today, children need more help than ever to distinguish between rules that are condoned in our 'virtual' culture (violent video games, rap music and films that glorify criminal behavior) from those that apply to real life.
7) Watch for signals when moral lines are crossed, including those that occur out of sight. Children and teens will test limits until parents place them. That's how they learn. Today, immoral behavior often takes place behind closed doors, online and in cyberspace. Whether breaking house rules or those set by schools or the law, these transgressions — or the potential for them — must be addressed through open discussion and firm action.
8) We need to be aware not only when rules are broken by our own children, but by their friends, acquaintances or neighbors. Potential dangerous behavior — even if only suspected — may require notification of proper authorities. Use your judgement or consult others, but airing on the side of caution regarding suspicious behavior is appropriate in today's culture.
9) Good grades at school are not enough to ensure that kids are alright. Evaluation of a child's sociability is a parent's responsibility. Wild and angry teens may grab our attention, but children who are isolated, lethargic, lack friends, have poor hygiene or are self-destructive may be at risk of violent or immoral behavior as well.
10) Children need to understand that cruelty can hurt others — not only physically, but psychologically as well. They need to be taught that violent actions can have have lifelong repercussions, not only for the victim, but the perpetrator and their loved ones.
With every news report of a murder by a young adult, questions naturally unfold. How could this possibly have happened? How can we comprehend anyone's capacity to inflict such cruelty on others? Did we miss the signs? Could the tragedy been avoided? While answers to these questions will not ease the pain at Sandy Hook, maintaining ethical behavior in our own circles may prevent similar tragedies in the future.
This past week's horrific news reminded me once again that, while we need training and a license to drive a car, pilot a plane and even own a gun — activities that are regulated by our government — what we need most and can regulate ourselves are the keys to raising healthy and moral children.
Share the ways you instill moral and ethical behavior in your family, so that we all can learn from each other. And, if you believe your child — or anyone you know — is potentially violent to themselves or others, contact your local mental health clinic and learn more about the topic here.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.
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