The kids here are scared. Countless children, from elementary school-age to teens, are refusing to sleep alone. 10-year old Brian will only sleep in his single mother's bed. 13-year-old Michael has wedged a golf club on one side of his bed and a samurai sword on the other. His mother tells me he sometimes slips one of the ceremonial daggers they have in their home under his pillow. When 7-year-old Alex recently heard a snow plow travel past his house, an occurrence previously ignored, he went into a state of hysterical panic. Jenny, 13, has made it clear to her parents that she does not feel safe in school. She goes, but she does not feel safe.
Over the past two months, Newtown, Connecticut has become a town of scared children.
I lived in New York City during 9-11. While my daughter, a first grader at the time, was aware that something bad had happened, I was able to keep much of the event at bay. Television was turned off; the incident was rarely, if ever, discussed at school and with airplanes and office buildings not being a regular part of her world, the actuality of that tragedy remained elusive.
This is different. Classrooms are second homes to children. Kids were there while the tragedy unfolded. Parents are openly grieving and obviously stressed. Almost everyone knows someone who has been directly impacted. Many young children have been hastily introduced to somber memorial services and vigils.
Ask Michael why he's surrounding himself with weapons and he'll tell you, as do many adults when asked the same question: "I want to feel safe."
I'm told that as result of this anxiety, we in Newtown need to prepare ourselves for a rise in destructive behavior such as substance abuse. It has been well-documented that trauma and fear, when left untreated, can lead people to reach for drugs and alcohol for relief. That's the bad news. The good news is there is an alternate perspective.
Newtown is at a tipping point. That the fear is currently so profound is precisely the reason there is an opportunity to take this fear and deconstruct it. We can choose to be a town that experiences a rise in post-traumatic stress or alternatively, a rise in "posttraumatic growth."
Posttraumatic growth; I first learned of it from a doctor who had helped the Oklahoma City families after the 1995 bombing. I was intrigued and encouraged by what this doctor shared.
Posttraumatic growth is defined as "a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event." While the concept of growth following trauma is not new information, what is new is the study of it in scientific and therapeutic institutions.
Posttraumatic growth builds upon the same principle Dorothy learned after her journey to Oz: the answer we seek is not "out there," the answer lies within.
Doctors studying Posttraumatic growth have found that they can foster such growth by helping victims of trauma build on resiliency skills they used during previous anxiety-provoking situations. For example, the abilities a person utilized to get through a public speaking challenge can be resurrected to help them get through their current state of anxiety -- even if the current state of anxiety is severe.
If no such skills are available, they can be taught. Apparently, the mere recognition of innate, empowering resources is a powerful tool for fostering Posttraumatic growth.
Toy weapons and stellar security systems won't address the root of our fears and the fears of our children, just as alcohol and drugs do not address the root of the addict's problems. Indeed, when an addict's "security blanket" (i.e. drugs, alcohol) runs its course, they hit rock bottom and either self-destruct or find new resources, new perspective and new strength -- strength they often never knew they had.
December 14th was Newtown's "rock bottom," and hopefully our nation's in regard to gun violence, and thus will now afford us our own chance to unearth new perspective, new strength.
Steven, a first-grader, was in the Sandy Hook school during the shootings. Steven knew a number of the children killed. According to his mother, Liz, he is doing better than many of his peers. Why?
"I have tried to utilize the situation to help him realize he can handle anything," said Liz. "That even in the scariest of situations, when he listens to what his 'gut' tells him, he will have the answer to all of his questions."
"They may doubt it," continued Liz, "but my kids are far more prepared than most in the face of danger. We reiterate to them time and again that their resilience and strength will pull them through every time."
Reminding kids of their innate resilience and strength is one of the most valuable lessons a parent can teach. Nonetheless, to be effective, parents must learn to access their own inner-strength. Given how committed parents here in Newtown are, I suspect many will soon discover a potency they never knew they had.
Bob Welch, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin NRA chapter, recently remarked that the "Connecticut effect" needed to pass in order for his group to press its lobbying agenda. As if the impact of this massacre will shortly become yesterday's news.
Bob is wrong. The "Connecticut effect" is not going to pass; indeed, it is going to grow.
Parents in particular will take this aptly titled "Connecticut Effect," along with the grief, the fear and the compassion, and they will revolutionize it into another aptly titled effect known as posttraumatic growth. They will do this because the alternative is no longer an option.
It is time to equip children with the awareness that their own internal resources can be far more powerful than any external panacea. Yet, just as we place the plane's oxygen mask on ourselves before placing it on our children, we need to first equip ourselves with the same awareness.
The fearful children of today's Newtown will then, hopefully, one day, exemplify the definition of "posttraumatic growth."