It may feel like a beginning of a dark psychological thriller. Early Friday morning in the midst of the holiday season, right after Thanksgiving, between Hanukkah and Christmas. A peaceful picturesque town. A twenty-year old honor student enters his mother bedroom while she is still sleeping. Children run to their mother’s bedroom for hugs, and protection from their fears and pains. The comfort of such moments soothes hurts throughout the entire life. But that student does something very different. He murders his mother. From the very same gun she used to teach him shooting. Then he drives to the elementary school and kills twenty boys and girls of six and seven years of age. And also six adult educators. Finally he kills himself. The very childhood itself has been shot.
It could have been a thriller. But reality was it. The tragedy of the Newtown Elementary School that raises difficult questions about ourselves and our society. The issue that struck me most is children’s vulnerability. Dostoevsky’s famous stance that the entire world is not worth one tear of a child continues to be among the most quotable sayings. But unfortunately child tears continue to be a part of the world’s everyday reality. And child tears frequently remain invisible. Moreover sometimes, instead of helping kids to cope with an ordeal, adults strew salt on children’s wounds. Often adults do it unintentionally, due to lack of understanding of children’s way to express their distress and trauma. In our media-dominated-world television can be a factor that enhances a child’s vulnerability. The intensively and extensively televised Newtown tragedy demonstrated that children who had already been exposed to the severe trauma of school shooting were not protected from potentially stress aggravating media intrusion. Depersonalization, anxiety and trauma closely intertwined. Childhood trauma that affects the very process of the development of self is characterized by a special affinity to depersonalization. DP can occur on the verge of trauma as an immediate defense against severe anxiety. And also elements of trauma related DP can appear months or even years after the exposure to trauma. Understanding children’s vulnerability is important not only in the context of depersonalization and self-identity, but also in the wider domain of humanistic health care. It felt too raw to touch upon this sensitive material on the edge of the Newtown tragedy. Now, three months seem to provide a distance that allows to reflect on children’s vulnerability in the time of tragedy and television. The generic style of reference to media materials, without using names and other identifications, has been chosen to protect the children appeared in these materials from another potentially traumatic exposure.
Childhood is the sweetest time of joy and happiness. But childhood is also the disturbing time of fears, anxieties and pains. Both childhood laughters and childhood tears shape the way a person walks through life. An old saying states that life is merely the process of leaking childhood’s wounds. To better the understanding of children’s vulnerability it is helpful to recognize the difference between child and adult psychological reactions. The child body and mind are not mature: they are in process of their development. Child stress, anxieties or depressions are not similar to those of adults. Where the adult complains of low mood and anxiety, the child complains of stomach ache or nausea. Where the adult feels upset and lost, the child feels “tired” or becomes “disinhibited.” Where the adult is aware of being traumatized and mobilizes her resources to fight trauma and get help, the child is less aware of being traumatized, has less resources to fight trauma and is less equipped with skills for getting help. These age-related presentations of child emotional and mental distress correspond to disturbances of particular stages of child development. Adults, being accustomed to adult reactions, can miss children’s different and unfamiliar signs of pain and distress.
The difference between children’s reactions and adults’ reactions to trauma exposure in Newtown was evident. Adults were visibly upset and nervous, emotionally gesticulating, tearful, and their answers broken by sobbing. They were aware of their emotional distress, they talked about the trauma and conveyed their disturbed feelings. Their narratives were sketchy rather then orderly, emotional rather than logical. Their speech was incomplete: more exclamations and partial unfinished phrases. And – attention: adults were usually capable of protecting their safety zone, doing what they felt comfortable to do and not doing what was uncomfortable. When an interviewer’s questions became too disturbing, an adult simply turned his back to the camera and walked away from a disturbing interrogation. So: Adult emotions, behavior and narratives were more consistent with the trauma to which they were exposed. Adults tended to actively express their distress and to protect themselves from more traumatization.
Children’s behavior exhibited some contrasting features. Children looked more organized and attentive rather than nervous and upset. They stood straight, looking directly into camera, no excessive movements and almost no sobbing. Children often neither volunteered to talk about the tragedy nor conveyed their feelings. But they were eager to respond to questions, giving coherent answers. They provided logical accounts of what had happened around them, chronicling their teachers’ and peers’ behavior. Children’s speech was clear with completed sentences. And - attention: children were less capable to protect their safety zone. They would do what they were asked to do, rather than what they were really comfortable doing. Children were prone to follow the interviewers’ instructions rather than follow their own feelings. When an interviewer kept pressing them with upsetting questions, children would keep answering, getting more quiet and formal. They did not turn their backs to the cameras and did not walk away from painful interrogation. So: Children’s emotions, behavior and narratives were less consistent with trauma. They tended not to actively express their distress and did not have full capacity to protect themselves from more traumatization.
Let’s compare two interviews. First of a young adult, a shooter’s peer. In the beginning he looked eager and cooperative. As the interview progressed, touching sensitive issues of the shooter’s mental health and provoking moral judgments and personal emotions, the interviewee looked uneasy, did not answer uncomfortable questions, abruptly ended the interview and left. The second interview is of a child who was at school during the shooting. From the beginning of the interview the child looked stressed, even shocked. However the child was focused and composed, answering the interviewer’s questions as a good student answers a teacher’s questions. As the interview progressed and the interviewer’s interrogation intensified, mounting questions about terrible traumatic events this child had experienced just a few hours before, the child kept answering. This elementary school student did not end this apparently disturbing questioning. The child was not equipped with mature skills to protect the self from additional emotional pain and aggravation of psychological stress.
During these dramatic days television broadcasted and the internet preserved many interviews with the Newton Elementary children. The interviews were alarmingly close to the one described above: aggressively interrogating adults and diligently answering children. The very well established media figures from all parts of the political spectrum demonstrated a very similar lack of elemental human sensitivity and the basic social dictum to care for those who are not capable of caring for themselves. Professional ethics considerations seemed to be ignored. Sometimes there was a feeling like witnessing misuse, if not abuse, of a child’s openness, dependence and vulnerability. The internet was boiling: adults who did feel the pain of “quiet” children under the pressure of interviews were rushing to condemn journalists’ interviews and protect the children. Was the journalists’ intrusion and the use of a child’s vulnerability just signs of professional media numbness, the other side of the zeal to get the most impressive material at any cost? And later, when finally such interviews were not conducted anymore, elements of such numbness kept appearing. Recently a professional publication appraised mental health professionals helping children of Newtown to cope with the psychological aftermath of the tragedy. The article opened the cover page with a touching picture of a disturbed child comforted by an adult. The picture captures true emotions, the despair of child grief and the power of caring adult protection. However, can we help wondering – how will this picture be seen by this child or this child’s friends and family? Now? Or in 10 years? Right below big letters that read “Psychiatric News”- !
Children are vulnerable. Vulnerability is their age-appropriate trait. They need adults to protect them and to care for them. Remember Dostoevsky: all knowledge of the world is not worth a tear of one child. Was the information that these journalists received from the interviews with the children worth the pain and disturbance of the interrogation of the already seriously stressed children?