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Commentary: So many questions; one answer: Be there for your children

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2012 - Dec. 14, 2012: "Gunman kills 20 children and six adults"

I learned mid-day of this horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. It jolted me back to 1999, Columbine, in Littleton, Colo. I remembered my first question in an article I had written for a local newspaper following this tragedy.

'Where does it all begin?'

This question is pivotal to Columbine and the tragedy now. As before with Columbine, we ask, “What are the roots of empathy?” Understanding this question and redirecting our energies toward nurturing empathy could lead to answers. Empathy is the capacity to experience the feelings of another person. It begins and develops in the reciprocal relationship of the mother-child bond. The child gains a sense of self through the mirror of the mother.

We learned that the gunman was 20 years old and lived with his mother. He killed her at their home before proceeding to the elementary school where he continued his massacre.

What had happened through the years to derail this young man`s bond to his mother? What happened to his relationship with his older brother, who, we've been told, had not been in contact with the shooter since 2010? We learn still later that his parents have been divorced since 2008.

So many questions, and yet, so few answers.

What we do know is that developing empathy begins with the mother-infant bond, and continues in a synchronous dance between mother and child, into adolescence and adulthood with different shadings and colorings throughout a lifetime. Yes! A lifetime.

The commonly held belief that adolescence is the time of separation and disengagement from parents is a myth, and not in the best interest of the adolescent`s development.

Kerry and Jack Novick, both well-known child psychoanalysts, have spoken out against the notion that the adolescent rite of passage to adulthood means separating from parents. Doing this would necessarily leave the young person "potentially floundering, turning only to a peer culture if available, isolated from reality, relying on magical, omnipotent ideas.” The Novicks make the point that there is not any other stage of life in our culture when important people, parents, accept being completely excluded. This would deprive the adolescent of the wisdom and life experiences of others.

When adolescents tell parents, "Backout, leave me alone," parents often feel they need to accept this as a natural phase of development. Instead, these are red flags revealing their upset and distress. They are calls for help. The Novicks have demonstrated that the goal of adolescence is transformation of the first relationships to others and to self.

The roots of empathy are found in the very early period of tactile ministrations that mother does with baby: touching, bathing, soothing, playing, holding, feeding. For mother and baby to enter into each other`s world, this close physical and emotional connection is a prerequisite. It builds the foundation for a lifetime.

Premature severance of this connection can have lasting effects. And to nurture this bond requires of a family: sacrifice, mutual support and, most of all, investment of parents’ time.

Physically present, emotionally available

Working mothers and fathers, pressured to return to the workplace after an abbreviated leave, cannot help but find their capacity for nurturing compromised. In our hurried world, family meals are sacrificed for evening meetings. There isn`t time and space just to be with our children.

To foster an empathic relationship, we need to be physically present and emotionally available to whatever experience or momentary interchange happens. This may not happen on parents’ time schedules, but we need to be present to the children’s. When this presence and exchange are absent, whether in infancy, toddlerhood, later childhood, or adolescence, our child may cope by distancing himself from his feelings, and subsequently from others.

As parents and professionals, we know that the quantity of time over many years is essential to support the progressive, psychological development of young people. Societal demands have caused us to rationalize that quality time is enough. With technology, a text message, “I love you,” can be rationalized to mean the same as the physical embrace and vocal words. While we may not be able to change the necessity for both parents working or in a single-parent household, one parent working, we can change the way we order our days to create time with our children and family.

Another question to consider is how does normal, healthy aggression become a violent act? Violence is the most extreme manifestation of human aggression. At the younger ages, frustration, displeasure and tension are expressed primarily through crying, irritability discomfort. If forced to contain too much without any release of tension, a child may cope by pushing down and repressing these feelings. The more this occurs over time, the less available those feelings become to the child. A distancing from ones`s feelings can begin.

Hatred and rage

Early separations can trigger feelings of rage, despair, despondency and detachment. Rage is a basic feeling of aggression. Rage, continually activated over time, can become a primary feature of the child`s/adolescent`s sense of self if not identified and understood within the individual. This insight can be gained through an intervention such as a psychotherapy experience.

If the hatred becomes too much for the child and/or adolescent to contain, it will be projected to those outside himself. This process occurs unconsciously. Thus, peers, teachers and even parents become the villains. This defense, which begins with projecting negative feelings about the self onto others, however, boomerangs back! The belief changes from: I hate that teacher or that nerd to: THAT PERSON HATES ME.

Where emotions are under-stimulated and underdeveloped because of lack of attachment and relationship, and at the same time over stimulated (materially with technology, activities, scheduled lives), the individual may react with a massive defense stemming from the rage felt for not having the parent available. For a child or adolescent to be capable of killing, he/she must first have experienced a part of herself/himself “killed” or numbed, because of inadequate attachment due to neglect, abuse or an absent parent.

A school is a amalgam of personalities in different stages of development. It is a multigenerational extension of the family. School is the child and adolescent`s place.

IT is his first test of self apart from family. We do not know the exact meaning of this school to the shooter, but we know that psychologically it had meaning. Like families, schools can be a deeply personal or deeply impersonal experience.

Adolescents are particularly sensitive to feelings of belonging and feelings of alienation. Each has begun the quest for identity and in the process of defining himself as an individual in the larger community. It takes only a slight, or turn of a word, to be misinterpreted as rejection by an adolescent who is unsure of himself internally. Words spoken with charged emotion by one adolescent can lead another to explode if what is heard causes reverberations of unresolved inner turmoil and conflict. Low self esteem combined with misperception can galvanize underlying anger to action. Is this what happened here in this case? So much is still not known as to the specifics of this case at Newtown, Conn.

Remain present to your children

Now, their parents and teachers need to help the children who have lost their friends, siblings, teachers, helpers and principal. Remain present to your children throughout their lives; be their ongoing support and mentor. Use words, dialogue with your children, especially now in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Something as horrific as this can challenge your children’s/adolescent’s sense of safety. Talk with your children about their fears. When fears are talked about, they can be understood.

Let them know that schools are safe places. TV reports can be dramatic and startling. Protect younger children from nightmarish TV reports. For younger children, give information like medicine -- in small doses. The dose of reality increases with the age of the child. Let your child/adolescent be the driver of the conversation and you, as parent or teacher be the passenger. Let their questions inform you as to your response.

Some children will not find the words to talk easily. They may find it easier to use art, play, writing, music to express their feelings. Talk about the safety guidelines at school and at home. Let them know from whom they can safely seek help when afraid, uneasy upset or feeling threatened. Watch for changes in behavior, mood, sleep patterns, eating. Notice if they are clinging to you. Normal routines are important.

Primarily, Be available not on your time schedule as a parent or teacher, but the child/adolescent`s time table. Our mantra is to BE EMOTIONALLY PRESENT TO OUR CHILDREN THROUGHOUT THEIR LIVES.

Robin L. Turner, MSW, LCSW, PSYD, is a child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst and the president of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.