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The 180 Blog Mar 5, 2018

The Parkland School Shooting: A Crisis Within the Crisis

By Pamela Cantor, M.D., President and CEO, Turnaround for Children

What is the real crisis revealed in these school shootings? Many believe it is gun violence made even more lethal with quick-firing semi-automatic weapons. And yes, people wielding guns are responsible for slaughtering children in their classrooms. Others say the crisis is lack of access to mental health resources. But that is like saying that an epidemic is being caused by there being too few doctors to treat it.

There is actually a much bigger crisis now, a crisis within the crisis, and that is the assault on children’s development and the expression of their lifelong potential. The expression of developmental potential (at the genetic level) in each and every one of us, depends on the context in which we grow and learn, on the environments and relationships we experience. Genes are chemical followers, packages of proteins that are triggered to expression by the context of children’s lives. Fear and the feeling of being unprotected are toxic to the developing brains and health of children.

Today, with mass shooting after mass shooting, we are building generations of children who will go to school in fear. When they sit in their classrooms, instead of being able to have unfettered attention on learning, or toward relationships, or on problem-solving and critical thinking – instead of any of this, they will be worried. Their brains will be on the alert – not because of an upcoming test or recital or athletic event. They will be occupied with the fear of a threat to their survival. The effect of this will be to diminish their concentration, attention, memory and creativity – and with it their developmental prospects, their health prospects and their learning prospects.

When the psychologist Anna Freud wrote about where a child’s sense of safety comes from, she was writing about the London Blitz (1940-41). She wrote about the fact that a child can believe they are safe if a parent believes they and their child are safe. Look at what has happened in this country to a parent’s ability to say to a child, “you are safe.” They don’t believe it – the child will see right through it. “But Mommy, but Daddy – why do these things happen? Am I going to be safe when I go to school?” What parent can say today that they know that that’s true? What teacher can say that and believe it?

The most powerful tool to mitigate this risk is a parent or teacher’s ability to buffer stress and provide a child with confidence in their own safety. This ability to buffer and protect is under assault, children’s healthy development is under assault. The combined effect of these two things will be experienced in the developing brains and bodies of many children, far more than those who perished in Florida on Valentine’s Day, with consequences to their learning, growth and health for years to come.