After the Attack on the Boston Marathon: How to Feel Safe in an Unsafe World

Ideas for psychotherapists, educators, community leaders, nurses, religious leaders, and, above all, parents of children in an unsafe world.

We all were still shocked and horrified by the terrible shooting of small children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT.

Now the ruthless and senseless bombing of the Marathon runners in Boston startled us out of our perhaps regained ordinary routine.

In between and before these events, other deadly attacks happened, equally destructive, but maybe less shocking because for us these attacks had already acquired a sense of normality. Extra-ordinary violence seems to become an ordinary event?

The crucial question is:
What are we to feel and think and, and more importantly, how are we to act as therapists, teachers, neighbors, caregivers or parents of children who feel unsafe, or as leaders responsible for civil or religious communities that look to us for reassurance?

As adults we find ourselves responsible for and accountable to children and adolescents in our communities. Children raise questions, adolescents act them out, but they all want to be reassured that the world they are living in is safe. Or is it? Telling what feels to be a lie or avoiding an answer to often unspoken questions will only poison the network of relationships, private or professional, with which we are connected for emotional nourishment and strength.

Here are some ideas that may serve as guiding suggestions for you, your loved ones and all with whom you are connected. Please, let us at PFI know what you have experienced as helpful, comforting, and strengthening your and your family’s resilience, whether you shared your reactions with others in your community and friendship network and how you benefited from your exchanges with family and friends.

A final note: These comments are written for people who live in what we could call middle class and diverse urban, suburban, or rural neighborhoods, in other words for people for whom the kind of mass violence that we recently witnessed is an extraordinary event.
[We may address later what people can do who live in disadvantaged, mainly urban, communities in which incidents of deadly violence are unfortunately a daily or weekly routine event and where the type of ordinary safety expected in the middle class “world” is rather extra-ordinary and the result of collaborative and purposeful initiatives by all who have a stake in making the community peaceful.]

For parents, teachers, therapists, nurses, community leaders:

Guideline # 1: You are the most important resource for your children, your classroom, your neighborhood, and your civic or religious community.

It is, therefore, crucial that you first take care of yourself. Remember the airline instruction in a case of oxygen emergency to first take the oxygen mask for yourself before you help someone next to you.
Be mindful of your own reactions, your own vulnerability, your own worries, your own sense of threat coming from your empathic connection with the children, youth, and adults who were killed in these violent attacks. As you turn inward and listen to your inner self you will also notice in you a sense of defiance, just like the people in Newtown and Boston. The roots of your inner strength and resilience are activated.

Guideline # 2: Activate and intensify your own intimate personal network.

Ask yourself who is a source of strength in my life? Looking around you see: your partner/spouse, adult family members, friends, other teachers, neighbors or colleagues at work, people from the community at large with whom you are close, people in your church, synagogue or mosque, people from your own ethnic/racial background with whom you feel like part of an extended family, or the parents of your children’s friends.

As you contemplate the sources of strength around you, you will make two striking discoveries.
One has to do with the relational intensity of your ties to your own cultural, ethnic, or racial identity. In times of crisis and threat to our well-being and emotional identity we almost instinctively reach out to people around us who belong to the cultural, ethnic, or religious group in which we grew up, whose language, gestures, values, songs, interactional style, food etc. feel familiar, feel “home”.

The other seemingly paradoxical discovery is how much strength originates from your responsibility for your children or your students, from the fact that there are people who look to you for guidance and leadership, or rely on your professional expertise in preparing for moments of imminent threat or for healing from the trauma of extra-ordinary violence.

Guideline # 3: Do some things that contribute to your and your community’s sense of safety.

Here are some sample ideas of activities you can initiate or be part of that will help you and your community to regain a sense of safety in a world that feels unsafe.

  • Non-violent initiatives for greater school and community safety (and counter-acting the impulse to put armed guards in schools) should be the most crucial step. Parents and teachers paying attention to what is going on around and inside of your child’s school and inside the classrooms can make a difference. Particularly in middle and high schools it is important to be sensitive and supportive to young people who struggle with individual or social challenges and to agree on ways to respond to troubling observations that are not destructive to students or their families.
  • Plan meetings with other parents, teachers, community leaders, clergy, police; participate in civic and religious activities intended to help all of us to cope with the realization that our “world” is unstable and that perfect safety is an illusion.
  • Protest against stigmatization of people diagnosed as “mentally ill”. (There is much less violence stemming from people with a psychiatric diagnosis than from the general population.) Educators in particular should be sensitive to the frequent bullying and stereotyping of teens, at school or in the social media.
  • Invite someone from a different ethnic or social background to dinner: In our inherent tendency to find answers, we (and the media) are too eager to “demonize” groups of people, such as adolescents with psychological problems or foreigners from cultures strange to us or adherents of other religions (“radical Islamists”).
  • You may want to get politically involved in the current initiatives towards reducing the availability of guns in order to reduce gun related violence.

Guideline # 4:
Filter the amount of daily TV news coverage to which you (and your kids) are exposed.

In the immediate aftermath of horrific events such as in Newtown or Boston we have the understandable desire to find out what happened or to make sense of a murderous attack on so many innocent people. We tend to underestimate the intensity of the constant stream of pictures, sounds, opinions, and emotional outpourings to which our senses are exposed. We end up being vastly overloaded and have no time or energy left to work through our own experiences and reactions. Many people become sleep deprived and lose whatever inner capacity they may have to center themselves.
So it may be crucial to shut down most media exposure, to read a book, to listen to music, to talk with your partner or a good friend, to play with your children, or to practice some of the recreational activities you enjoy.

Considerations for those parenting children and teens or being responsible for young people as a teacher, counselor or minister:

Guideline # 1:
Understand the context of your relationship with children and teens.

Obviously, it makes a difference whether you are a parent, a teacher, a coach, a minister, a therapist, a social worker, or a neighbor. In each case there is a specific context that informs the character of the relationship. This context enables and limits the kind of conversation you may be able to have. It is also of significance whether you are addressing safety with one child at home or whether you are speaking in your classroom to many kids.

Guideline # 2: The sense of safety among the young people entrusted to you originates from the relationship they have with you.

So it is crucial to be authentic, to not deny your own worries and nightmares, to acknowledge your struggle to stay grounded in the face of a horrific act of indiscriminate violence or to admit that you have no answers either. Even young children can sense whether you are genuine or making something up or hiding your true feelings from them. Whether you’re speaking from the heart or just trying to reassure them will come through to them, particularly in a classroom setting or in a religious context.

Guideline #3: To restore a sense of safety among young people it is important that you’re a person speaking with authority.

As parent, teacher, therapist, police officer, or community leader, – your active involvement and commitment to the relationship with young people will signal trustworthiness. That process creates authority (which is different from power).

Commitment translates into engaging actively. Listening, focusing on what is said to you, answering questions in a straightforward way, conveying your genuine curiosity about your child’s or your students’ experience (and that of their families and peers), tolerating diversity of viewpoints and ambiguity inherent in most human endeavors are some of the crucial relational activities.

Guideline # 4:
Pay close attention to the developmental phase of the children and teens in your family, your classroom, your social skills group, or any other social context.

  • For small children this may mean to carefully screen and limit their exposure to newscasts or TV in general; instead you can give extra attention and time to more playing or reading together or listening to music. As a parent you may want to find out whether your child heard some of what happened; as a teacher you can inquire how much your students understood, overheard family members’ conversations, and who among them in your class is unaware of a violently destructive incident.
  • With older children and pre-teens your sensitivity will have to guide you in terms of finding a balance between answering mainly factually oriented questions or responses and your curiosity about what all this emotionally means to them. Although younger kids often do not volunteer much about the emotional impact of an act of violence they often are affected by what they hear or see on TV. So your tactful questions can greatly help to bring out what they experience.
  • We are often puzzled how adolescents experience the “normality” of acts of extraordinary violence. They let us know through their behavior. Whatever you can do as parent, teacher, coach, minister, therapist, or neighbor to intensify your relationship with a teenager will serve as indispensable basis on which to build a conversation. There are no shortcuts.
    And teens are at a particularly vulnerable stage in their emotional and cognitive development. Many are more traumatized as a result of family conflicts, vicious peer interactions, or their idiosyncratic absorption of social events than we like to assume. Telltale signs of trouble are a teenager’s social isolation and increasing loneliness and marginalization. Most revealing for a parent, friend, or educator is a thorough look at the young person’s family, school, and peer context. The worst is to brand them with stereotypical mental health labels.
    Providing, therefore, opportunities at school or at home to reflect with other students or within the family on current events, inquiring about the teenager’s emotional reaction and sense of personal safety, and about whether she or he feels embedded in a caring and supportive network could be important steps toward growing and healing. Moreover, many students get quickly engaged in discussions on values and the importance of non-violent conflict resolution.

The horrible events in Newtown, CT, and during the Boston Marathon have brought the realization home that our “world” is not safe and that we may have to live with the ordinariness of extra-ordinary levels of violence. Only ongoing conversations on the family, school, and community level and corresponding joint actions will help reassure us and through us our children and adolescents that safety is ultimately a state of mind, a sense of belonging to a family and community where people care and are willing to support each other in times of crisis.
What we also should be mindful of is the enormous diversity in our communities and the cultural and religious richness originating from this diversity – far from the stereotyping that was inherent in much of the language coming from the media.

Finally: Let’s not forget the scandal of ordinary, daily violence that plagues so many poor neighborhoods in NJ. Untold numbers of children, teenagers and their families have to endure this ongoing, often deadly violence.

Norbert A. Wetzel May 12, 2013 wetzel@princetonfamily.com

violence, families, safety, threat, trauma