Trauma Can Spark Change

How to use the Newtown tragedy to promote change within our own families.

Posted Jan 13, 2013

As part of the healing process, I suggest we do both; move on, but use this recent tragedy to promote positive change in the future. Action -- whether large or small -- aimed at creating something meaningful out of a senseless act can go a long way toward recovery.

In my last post, I discussed what parents can do to minimize the potential for violence in their own homes. I listed tips for raising moral children so that parents understand their role in teaching kids right from wrong and their responsibility for reporting immoral behavior when they see it.

Here are six more ways to draw from the Newtown tragedy to promote change in our own homes:

  1. Talk to One Another: Begin an open discussion about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, not necessarily about the particular event, but as a starting point to reflect on larger cultural issues. The conversation needs to be appropriately adjusted to the age of your family members, so rely on some available guidelines about how to do that. Most children will inevitably hear about violent attacks in schools -- from the news, friends or when others occur in the future -- so open discussion at home is the best place to initiate, share and monitor reactions.

Anger Management: Talk to your kids about how to manage their anger. While parents assume their children know that violent actions are not permissible or that "no hitting, kicking or biting" has been taught at school, a specific discussion about how to deal with one's own aggression is important. Give examples like, "When I get mad at someone, I take a deep breath, think about why I am so angry and find words I can use to deal with it." How to manage rage reactions by others is also an important topic that needs to be discussed in today's culture. Teach your children what they can do when their peers (or their authority figures) show potential for irrational or violent behavior.
  3.  Learn about Mental Illness: Have an open conversation about mental illness. Stigmatization, in part, comes from lack of knowledge and information. The more we understand about an illness, the more empathic we tend to be. Too often, children are misguided about people who suffer psychologically. Kids find it hard to comprehend that psychiatric symptoms -- especially delusions or hallucinations -- cannot be controlled, and as as a result, they are uncomfortable, fearful and even taunting about them. If you know someone who is depressed, anxious or has a more serious disturbance, put a face on the illness for your children. Explain that psychiatric symptoms -- like the physical ones they are more familiar with -- can be alleviated with help from doctors and medications.
  4. Discuss Bullying: Bring up the issue of bullying. While it is a hot topic currently being discussed at schools, talking about it in the context of your family is critical. Siblings can learn that taunting each other may seem harmless, but will be deeply hurtful and have long-term effects. If it occurs at home -- bullying and reactions to being bullied -- use these behaviors as examples of what can happen at school and how to deal with it. Too often, parents assume their children are immune to (or don't participate in) bullying. But even smart and popular kids report being on both sides of the bullying experience -- often in cyberspace -- out of their parents' and teachers' purview.

Supervising Virtual Violence: Monitor the video games your children watch, especially those that simulate the kind of violence that occurred at Sandy Hook. While researchers have yet to find an exact equation between violent games and rage reactions, there is growing evidence of a possible connection. Some believe the solution lies in throwing out all violent video games -- as did the Newtown middle schooler who came up with "Played Out," a mission to rid his town of games with violent content. What we do know is that adults should watch the games their children play to determine if they are appropriate. Most important, parents need to help children distinguish between real-life criminal behavior and the violent virtual worlds their kids will no doubt be exposed to -- whether these games are accessible at home or not.

Role Modeling: Remind older family members that they are role models for the younger ones. Whether younger siblings are close to their older brothers or sisters, they tend to identify with them. Especially among same-sex siblings, copycat behavior is common. Parents need to remind the older family members how influential they can be to the younger ones -- both positively and negatively. Big brothers and sisters should also be reminded that it's one thing to 'tattle' and another to express concern when a younger relative is in trouble. The same applies to concerns that younger siblings may have about their older relatives -- be it a brother, sister, cousin, aunt or uncle. In the end, when family members look out for one another, everyone benefits.

While there have been gestures following the Sandy Hook shooting that have brought national attention -- like the one that NBC's Ann Curry began when she created a Twitter-generated program for 26 acts of kindness -- there are small ones within our own families that may go unnoticed. But it's these very actions by everyday people that may contribute most to helping avoid recurring tragedies and even turn a horrific event into long-term, positive results.


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) 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 and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

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