The Connection Between School Shootings & Trauma

I'm going to ask you to think about the school shootings that have gone on in the United States over the last two decades.  Think of the men and boys who, for whatever reasons, chose to horrifically end the lives of their peers and often their own lives as well.

Now rewind.  Imagine those young men on their first day of kindergarten. 

Why does Joey get off the bus thirteen years later poised to thrive in society and Johnny feel so hopeless and angry that he feels the need to murder? 

The answer is trauma.

While there are a number of factors that contribute to feeling so hopeless, so disconnected that someone feels the need to take another person's life, trauma is present 99.9% of the time.  More likely than not, little Johnny is getting off of that school bus and going home to physical and/or emotional violence between his parents.  He's sleeping without heat because the gas bill couldn't get paid this month.  He may be the victim of physical or sexual abuse by a family member.  He may be told he's stupid or no good or a host of other horrible things that adults shouldn't be told, let alone children.  His physical and emotional needs are going unmet.

As a result, Johnny acts out in class.  He becomes the thorn in his teachers side.  He may get punished more often, socially ostracized by the other kids and pushed further into the outskirts of social acceptance. 

Now home and school are uncomfortable and unsafe leaving him feeling he has less options and less to lose.

Now, let's be clear.  All of this is not to say there should be no accountability.  We can both hold individuals accountable AND understand how this came about in the first place.  Because these incidents are tips of icebergs.  And the tip of an iceberg can feel like it popped out from behind thick patches of fog to surprise us.  But the iceberg wasn't really hiding was it?  It's been there all along.  

Let's also be clear that while it is true that there has been an increase in school shootings it is still statistically an unlikely event.  But do you know what is likely going on in the homes of children in your district?  Child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect.  While again, it takes a number of factors for these kids to grow up to be school shooters, they are more likely to go on to physically and verbally abuse their girlfriends, severely bully other students and sexually assault other girls and boys.

Imagine you had every child and parent in your school district in a room.  Now apply the numbers:

  • One in three of the adolescents in the room will experience physical, emotional, verbal and/or sexual violence by their boyfriend.
  • One in three women and one in four men in the room are survivors of domestic violence.
  • Just over 3,000 child abuse reports were made in Allegheny County in 2016 (3 deaths).  A portion of those CYF calls were made in your district.
  • One is 6 women in the room have been raped and just over 50% of those rapes occurred before she was 18 years old.

Violence is already present in our schools.  Trauma exists on campus with our children.   We all say those silent prayers each time we send our kids off to school:

"Please be safe."  "Please come back to me."

But when we solely focus on what could happen today, we miss opportunities to do some real prevention work for the future. There are many factors that go into whether or not Johnny is going to end up hurting himself or someone else throughout his time in class with our kids.  But trauma is the common denominator.  Therefore, we must ask how can we better connect with and support the family who can't put food on the table.  How do we reach out and support kids and adults who don't feel safe in their homes?  The puzzle pieces are all around us, we're just not putting them together to see the bigger picture.

All too often we look to teachers to bear the brunt of this responsibility.  And it's true, they are at times the front line.  But it's on parents and community members to take accountability for the emotional and physical safety of the children around us. Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Collaborate.  With each other, with teachers, the PTA, with the school board--everyone. 
  2. Find out if your school has had any trauma informed training.  Do your teachers know how to identify behaviors as potential symptoms of trauma?
  3. Advocate for both physical AND emotional safety in schools.  Get creative about promoting a culture of emotional safety in school throughout the year--it cannot be a one time event.
  4. Find ways to expose families in your district to information about key issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse prevention as well as resources for utility assistance, food pantries, DV shelters, etc.

We're talking about creating a cultural shift inside the classroom but also within ourselves as a community.  And as you get started it can certainly feel overwhelming but worth it.  The presence of ONE stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult can change the course of even the most troubled child's life. Please remember:

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant." 

Robert Louis Stevenson

When Abuse is Normalized

Every Saturday after the kids go to bed my husband and I rent a movie to maintain some resemblance of being a couple outside of being parents.  Last weekend I made the terrible choice of choosing Manchester By the Sea.  If you love feeling like an open wound, freshly salted, then it's the movie for you!  If not, then move on.  So this weekend we chose Fifty Shades of Grey thinking it would be a cheesy but fun movie. 

To be clear: two consenting adults engaging in dominant-submissive behavior can be a positive and pleasurable part of a relationship. 

To be extra clear--that is not what was going on in this movie.

There are about 1 million articles written on how this movie got it right or wrong.  This article articulates my thoughts on how it got it wrong in it's portrayal of who dominant and submissive individuals are.

More importantly however, is the not-so-subtle normalization of abusive behaviors.  This isn't the first movie that gives us romance with a splash of violence or violence with a glimpse of romance.  And it certainly won't be the last.  But let's be extra, super clear about a few things:

  1. No one should ever "own" you.  It's one thing to play out roles and follow "orders" but it's another when someone is exerting power and control over you.  When the role play is over, but the control continues, it's a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
  2. When someone tells you that you are no longer "allowed" to drink alcohol, curse, wear provocative clothing, spend time with a friend/family member, [insert just about anything here], that is an example of someone exerting power and control over you.  In true BDSM, there may be a restricted time period in which part of the play is that you are to not engage in a behavior, but if you're being told that you can no longer do something you've always done, that's a red flag for abuse.
  3. If someone keeps showing up at places you are (at home, work, a bar, or in this case across the country at your mom's house) that's stalking behavior.  More on stalking here.
  4. If you are ever forced to or ever feel pressured or shamed into engaging in a sexual act with a partner, it is not a healthy relationship.
  5. A partner who wants all of your attention and limits or interferes with your time with friends and family is not showing affection.  They are isolating you from your support system.

Over the past two years I've somehow stayed out of most conversations regarding this book and movie.  I liked that women were talking about sex and sexuality.  I liked that people were exploring sides of their psyche that they maybe haven't before.  I heard and read a lot of opinions around the ethics of BDSM, questions around if you can be a feminist and a submissive and what it means to be a trauma survivor and a dominant/submissive.  But there was little said about Christian and Anastasia's relationship outside of the bedroom.  Which is why this movie surprised me so much and why I'm writing it two years after it came out. 

Hollywood has a long history of normalizing abusive relationships.  Abuse is not normal.  If you've found yourself in an unhealthy relationship or have one that you're having trouble getting past?  Get support.  You deserve to feel safe.   You deserve to feel happy.





When Birth Ain't All That Beautiful

Giving birth is an amazing, beautiful thing.  Except when it's not.  Or, maybe you're overwhelmingly happy that your baby is healthy and safe, but in the end the whole thing left you feeling detached... or sad that it wasn't what you imagined or worse, scared because the experience was so traumatic.

Many new moms feeling the "baby blues" may not realize that the way they feel is connected to their birthing experience. Traumatic birth experiences include feelings of helplessness, loss of control or imminent danger to you or the baby during childbirth.  

Did you feel left out of the decision making during your labor and delivery?  Was there an emergency with you or the baby? 

Consider reading more on traumatic birth and know that getting support can help you to heal and be the mom you want to be.

The Far Reach of Trauma

Trauma is a hot topic these days.  And that's a good thing!  Except...not all understanding of trauma is equal.  Your therapist, your doctor, your yoga instructor--they (hopefully) all know that having a basic understanding of trauma is important.  They know that if you were abused as a child, the ramifications of that experience can be seen throughout a lifetime.  They know to ask you about it and probably write it down somewhere.

But a trauma informed clinician? They know there's more to the story.  A trauma informed clinician knows that trauma has the ability to take root into your history and then, with time, grow and stretch and sprout out over your life in ways you might not notice.

Having difficulty communicating with your partner?  Suddenly anxious as your child entered kindergarten?  Do you have a chronic health problem that's been difficult to treat?  If you have experienced a distressing or disturbing event in your life, trauma is likely playing a role.

You may have packed up and left your past behind long ago, but your trauma hitched a ride.  Ask your doctor or therapist more about how they understand trauma's role in our mental and physical health.