Op-Ed: What we can do in light of Newtown

Scary, disturbing, disgusting and virtually incomprehensible. These are the immediate feelings that overwhelm me as I watch the news unfold about the Newtown massacre.

The shooter, like all children, had his own social, environmental and neurological history. This story brings to the forefront critical lessons in need of attention.

We must guard against jumping to the conclusion that autistic-spectrum-disorder individuals are dangerous. But children who have difficulty with social engagement need support. The issue of bullying has been on everyone's mind and a focus of attention in our schools. However, what gets identified by a child as bullying is sometimes seen by others as the consequence of the child's own awkward behavior or that the child is just “too sensitive.” These children may bring teasing on themselves by misreading others' behaviors as teasing. They may perceive violations of rules as personal attacks rather than in the context of more nuanced communication and get upset. Isolating them amplifies their sense of being alone in the world. Adults must honor when a child complains of being bullied, even when we don't see it that way. Social isolation and rejection are deeply painful.

It is critical that we pay attention and turn toward these children in the social/school environment. Difference, when mocked, makes for resentment and potentially self-harming behavior or violence. My plea here is that we each examine what our children say about their school experience and peers. It is up to us as adults to discern what is being communicated. We as adults must also help our children move away from rejecting others who they find different and instead move toward understanding and being more tolerant of differences between people.

Also, allowing our children with social challenges to find their only connection in the world via computer/video games is a risky path forward. These children need to be joined. They need to learn about the emotional world. They may feel anger, sadness and hurt and not even be aware that they are experiencing these painful emotions. Instead their nameless angst may get played out in the virtual world. A parent can help their child learn more about their emotional world when they play. Who are the characters? What is the history that makes them act that way? What made them want to act that way? Do you ever feel that way? What did that character do that makes him a target? These may provide a door into the child's video game world and a path into connection in the real world.

Experience wires neurology, and if the only joy/reward one feels is aggression, how does that affect the individuals' social function? For those with aggressive tendencies, violent video games can increase aggressiveness and decrease empathy. For those who don't do well socially, it is essential they get experiences with others that are rewarding and positive. As a parent, we must start looking more closely at the role of video games in our children's lives. Can my child tolerate limits on play? Does my child sneak playing? Does thinking about games preoccupy his/her thoughts? How does my child handle his/her anger?

The Newtown massacre is a tragic event. We are all in shock and horror. What would make it more egregious is if this event didn't teach us something about how to move forward and become better human beings. There are many among us who struggle with social isolation and social awkwardness. The Sandy Hook event is a call to action to pay attention to our children who struggle socially. It is a time to think more about our emotional lives and the human experience, especially at this time of year. Maybe this year Christmas can be about compassion, acceptance, tolerance and connection instead of the next electronic gadget under the tree.

DEBRA KESSLER, Psy.D., is a member of the La Cañada Flintridge Community Prevention Council. She can be reached via her website, www.drdebrakessler.com.

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