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Parenting in an Age of Increased Shooter Violence

When a gunman kills young children, everyone feels less safe.

Key points

  • When shooter violence occurs in schools, parents worry about protecting their children who become more frightened, too.
  • Shooter violence may express an emotional problem, a male problem, a cultural problem, a family history problem, or a social isolation problem.
  • To reduce male violence, talk about feelings, forsake domination, disbelieve violent fantasy, reject violent history, and have friends.
 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

We have another mass murder, this time in an elementary school—children and teachers murdered, families bereft, a community blasted, and a nation once again painfully reminded that we cannot protect ourselves from ourselves.

Struggling to Understand

How are adults to understand and explain what happened? So many questions remain unanswered: “If an elementary school isn’t a safe place for our children, where is?” “What causes such senseless killing?” “Are we supposed to have armed guards on patrol or arm our teachers?”

Of course, resorting to such “safety” measures can be double-edged, both assuring and alarming. While children may feel better protected and secure, they may also feel more endangered and afraid.

What’s the Problem?

It’s complicated to profile such destructive decision-making and identify possible factors in such a tragedy as that which occurred in Uvalde, Texas. Consider five possible influences:

  1. Shooter violence is not just a gun-control problem; it is an emotional-control problem because desperate feelings trigger rash decision-making.
  2. Shooter violence is not just a human problem; it is a male problem because in virtually all cases the killers are threatened or aggrieved men.
  3. Shooter violence is not just a social problem; it is a cultural problem because we love to celebrate physical violence in our mass entertainment.
  4. Shooter violence is not just a current problem; it is a historical problem because violence likely occurred in the shooter’s family history.
  5. Shooter violence is not just a social problem; it is a solitary problem for the killer who is usually a loner, an outsider who does not belong.

Of course, increasing any of these influences can be the use of alcohol or other drugs, psychoactive substances that can impulsively and aggressively alter one's perception, judgment, and action-taking.

Choosing Violence

There is accidental human violence that we live with as a fact of daily life—such as the roughly 40,000 automobile deaths a year. This rate of dying is the price we agree to pay for the freedom to motor ourselves around. Just because cars are a more deadly device in our country than are guns, do we want such fatal acceptance to include shooter violence as a necessary byproduct of the freedom to bear arms?

Then there is intentional human violence that seems to have many motivations, perhaps like these:

  • Freedom from restraint: “No one can stop me!”
  • Satisfying grievance: “I’ll make them pay!”
  • Expressing hate: “They deserve to die!”
  • Relieving pain: “I’ll ease my torment!”
  • Getting attention: “I’ll show the world!”
  • Problem-solving: “I’ll fix what’s wrong!”

Committing bloodshed satisfies some purpose for the perpetrator, at least at the destructive moment when violent emotions and thoughts justify taking violent measures: “Doing wrong feels right to do.”

Unhappily, the shooter most often keeps these motivations secret until, through a sudden burst of deadly aggression, the hidden is suddenly revealed. If only we could spot such violence building; but what would we be looking for? And what might we say to children to lessen their getting into such a violent state?

Possible Prevention

What might parents do to help their child or adolescent not get drawn into committing violence? Perhaps do some of these:

  • Help young people learn to process emotional pain through communication, talking it out to reduce the risk of shutting up and acting it out. While emotions are good informants, they can be bad advisors. Maybe suggest: “Don’t ‘think’ with your feelings.”
  • Help young men understand that violence is not a manly thing to do, valuing instead steadfast powers like moderation, consideration, and restraint. Strength is not just what one can do, but what one doesn’t do. Maybe suggest: “Don’t let domination drive deciding.”
  • Help young onlookers appreciate how watching or playing at killing in current media can desensitize young people into believing violence is fun. Popular entertainment pretends what isn’t really so. Maybe suggest: “Don’t let fantasy become believing.”
  • Help young people liberate themselves from repeating violent behavior that was witnessed or experienced in their family. From how one was treated, one may learn to treat others. Maybe suggest: “Don’t do to others what you wish hadn’t happened to you.”
  • Help young people stay socially connected so they have a community to which they can belong. Living alone and disconnected can encourage distortion and desperation. Maybe suggest: “Don’t choose isolation, but build relationships that matter.”

A Final Word

Certainly, availability is a factor in gun violence because ready access to arms makes it easier to get weapons for those violently inclined. Thus, regulating gun ownership makes social sense.

However, addressing human violence (attacks meant to inflict harm) quickly gets more complex because we both socially endorse it in some forms and condemn it in others. Thus, we enjoy watching it as popular amusement on television and elsewhere and we train soldiers to kill in war, but we oppose it as physical assault and prosecute abuse among family members. It’s a love/hate relationship we have with human violence. The mixed message seems to be: “Violence is good except when it’s bad.”

Then there is sex-role socialization. Sometimes males are encouraged to silently endure hard experience: “Don’t complain; just tough it out!” Shutting up is manly. Sometimes females are encouraged to share hard experiences to get support: “It feels more bearable when I can tell someone.” Talking out is womanly.

At the extremes of this contrasting socialization are common sexual stereotypes, often promoted by popular media—how masculine and feminine are often differently and persuasively defined. For example, while men may be ideally portrayed as powerful, tough, forceful, and combative, while women may be ideally portrayed as sympathetic, tender, supportive, and caring.

Of course, male and female definitions are not limited to either/or, but can grow into a combination of both—having both aggressive and sensitive sides. However, to the degree that young men mostly identify with the male stereotype, they may be more predisposed to violence than young women. In these cases, perhaps, parents can encourage such a son to develop a more balanced mix.

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