School Shootings: How You Can Think and Act About Them

Dr. John Townsend

July 13, 2018

Some of the most heartbreaking and disturbing feelings you can experience are in the aftermath of the tragedy of a school shooting.

It is something we were not designed to handle, as the depth of the loss is intense. The feelings we have tend to be a combination of horror, sadness, anger and being overwhelmed.   

We are horrified by knowing kids, our most vulnerable population, are being killed. Our sadness is a reflection of our compassion for these children and their families, in which life has been marked forever. Anger comes against the murderer, creating a desire for justice. And the overwhelmed part is because there is so much division in our country about what can solve this.  

There are some ways to think about this controversial issue, and some things we can do, that will help. Here are some tips:

Get clear.

Neuroscience teaches us that our minds do not do well in an overwhelmed state. When we see a video of a shooting and then feel the emotions I described, our brains go into the amygdala mode, which is our reactive, fight-or-flight mode. The strength of these strong and conflicting emotions can, over time, keep us upset, feeling paralyzed, and not being able to let this go and deal with our normal lives.

This is no solution for how to solve the issue, nor is it one what is good for your personal life either.  So get clear: make sure you are talking to safe people in your life who can really hear how much emotion you feel. You don’t want to be alone with those feelings.

Also, study the issue, don’t ignore it. Ignorance adds to the confusion, and information clarifies. Figure out which of the experts and solutions make sense to you. Take a stance, even though it isn’t perfect. You will simplify your mind’s clarity and be able to handle what you think about the situation.

Think in terms of balance.

We need to deal with the symptom of the problem, which is that, in the current environment, our schools need systems for protection and security. And we need to deal with the causes as well. There are several causes that are being investigated, with mental illness, gun control, and criminal behavior being some of the most discussed ones.  

An approach that only addresses the symptoms is bound to ultimately fail, as is the cause-focused approach as well. If a doctor has a patient with a raging fever, she will certainly give him something for his discomfort, but she will also examine him for a bacterial, viral, or other cause, to solve the underlying problem.

Don’t be the hand-wringer. Be a solver.  

Unfortunately, we tend to move into “it’s all going to hell in a handbasket” conversations when we see the horror and devastation of these school shooting tragedies. We certainly all need time and conversations to process this, in order to digest the data in our brains.  

But, once you have done that, stay away from those conversations that don’t go anywhere after a while, except into helplessness and bitterness. They aren’t good for you or the schools.

I was at a dinner of friends recently where a few people got into the topic, and it was going nowhere except into more unproductive, helpless and angry feelings. Then, one of the people in the group said, “We’ve talked about this a lot, and it’s important. Can we either come up with our ideas for solutions or change the subject?” The result was that several people had some good ideas, and it became a more helpful conversation.

Our kids and our schools deserve the most thoughtful solutions possible. We need to all look for answers.


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