Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Virginia Tech Tragedy: A Wake up Call to Every Parent’s Nightmare

Just recently, the news announced Virginia Tech’s plans to reopen the dorm and academic building where 32 young men and women, students and faculty were gunned downed by a student. Although the dorm will continue to house residential students, the university announced that classes no longer would be held in the other building.

While avoiding the scene of so much loss for students makes sense, we can’t help but be reminded of that tragic day in April of 2007. That day, we were all touched by this tragedy. Every parent and student could relate to the sheer terror of the events that unfolded. Even for those adults who didn’t have kids, the shock and sadness was just as painful as was the demand for increased security measures on school and college campuses across the country. "It could have been me, my child, my spouse, relatives, co workers, or neighbors that went to work or class that day and never returned."

So, months later there are still many parents who worry about the safety of their children in schools and universities across the nation. Whether we are sending our young ones off to the local public school or driving our freshman to college for the first time, we can’t help but worry that something might happen that prevents them from coming back home. We expect and accept that we live in a violent world. We see it in the media and believe that violence occurs elsewhere: Iraq, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Israel but not here. We are aware of the gang violence and drive by shootings that plague neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Newark. But, we don’t expect it to happen in suburban, upper class communities or on elite college campuses. While urban schools and colleges have had to assure parents that their students were safe by putting in place security measures, that included campus police, metal detectors, random locker searches, and locked dorms, schools in suburban and rural areas were slower to respond. After all, the common notion is that violence is bred by poverty and over crowded conditions and unlikely to prevail outside of those communities. So it came to us as a shock when we started seeing a number of violent shooting incidents occurring in rural and suburban communities across the country.

The safety and security of our children has become a source of anxiety shared by parents across the nation. As the Baby Boomer generation, we place a high priority on this. We were the children growing up in the 50’s and 60’s practicing duck and cover drills in the face of an escalating cold war. We grew up in a post war age where nuclear deterrence was the main strategy for preventing war. We watched Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best: Idyllic nuclear families with few problems that couldn't be solved within a 30 minute sitcom. By the time the Brady Bunch came along, we knew that blended families were cool and divorce was a rarity. As parents, we made sure we read Dr Spock, signed up for Lamaze classes, and rejected baby formula, opting to breast feed our babies instead. We changed our diets, quit smoking and limited our alcohol consumption to ensure a healthy baby. And once the child was born, we spared no expense hiring a whole slew of nannies, tutors, babysitters and coaches to help us protect and nurture our children. We give them beepers and cell phones so that we can stay in contact and spend years chauffeuring them around from dance classes to piano lessons to soccer practice. We make sure they go to the best schools, often taking on the burden of huge real estate taxes to live in communities that we believe offer better and safer schools. We monitor their music, TV watching and computer use. We screen their friends. And in spite of all of our efforts, they are still at risk for drug abuse, alcoholism, STD’s and death by violence.

How does a parent handle this? Obviously, home schooling your child through graduate school is not an option and we can’t control every situation our kids will find themselves in. It would be so easy if we could identify and eliminate all the "bad" situations, "negative influences" and "dangerous" people in their life. But we can’t. While some murderers "look" like "scary people", most don’t. While millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, only a handful ever acts out violently. So how do we deal with the increasingly dangerous world that our children will have to live in?

I think we start by allowing our kids to learn about the real world. Sheltering them from all the bad stuff just makes them naïve and more curious. Our notions of what is safe and unsafe need to change. While most of us would agree that home is a safe place, there are thousands of men, women and children who would disagree. Domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse are unfortunate realities for many. As parents, we can try to make our homes safe by looking at the environment we create. Is there supervision? Is there structure and routine? Are there adult figures one can rely upon? Does the child feel safe in the community they live in: Safe from bullies and abusers, safe from gang violence? Does the community have trust for the police and criminal justice system, believing that their rights will be protected and they will be treated fairly? Are their adults in your child’s lives who are supportive and positive role models? As your child gets older, are the lines of communication kept open so that they are allowed to grow and become independent while benefiting from parental guidance and expectations. Has that child been taught how to make decisions for him/herself and how to be their own person?

As your young adult prepares to leave home how prepared are they to live on their own? Whether they live in a college dorm or rent an apartment have you discussed and shared with them your concerns around security? We often assume that colleges or chaperones will provide the necessary supervision and guidance but we know that the average young adult will make choices that can place them in danger. It wasn’t that long ago that we all anguished over the outcome of a young student who went on vacation out of the country. Why do we allow our young people to travel and naively believe that they are safe in situations that you or I would feel nervous about? A young woman, out drinking with her friends who then goes off with a stranger…in what situation would that not be scary?

We can call for better mental health screening, question confidentiality policies that serve to keep parents uninformed about their adult child’s mental status. We can tighten up gun registration laws and enhance campus security, but we owe it to our children to help them to be less cavalier about their life and the choices they make. When we rush to fix a problem, bail them out of a bad situation or shelter them from real life consequences, we do them a disservice.

As your child starts back to school this fall or heads off for college or jumps on a bus rushing off to camp, think about what else you could do to help them be safe in a world that is fast becoming a scary place. The world we grew up in was very different from the one our children live in.

I agonized over the loss of so many young lives on that day in April. I also am saddened when any young life is needlessly snuffed out by the whims of another. I can only imagine the loss and pain of losing one’s child. As a parent, I still whisper a prayer when my adult kids are traveling, or driving late at night. My instinct is to want to hold on to them and keep them safe. And while that might lessen my anxiety, it wouldn’t in fact make them any safer or prepare them to live out in the world. As parents, the tougher job we face is figuring out how we can toughen them up; Make them resilient and able to adapt to a changing world. We made those changes in our lifestyle and parenting when they were young for a reason: Not to protect as much as to prepare our kids for a future that while of our making, will also reflect the choices and values of their generation.


Anonymous said...

Better mental health screening?

You mean like TeenScreen?

Video here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfU9puZQKBY

Petition here:http://www.petitiononline.com/TScreen/petition.html

Federal bill here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc110/h2387_ih.xml

Donna Sotolongo, Psy. D said...

When I refer to screening I am not advocating "teen screening". I believe that only qualified mental health professioals in conjunction with a psychiatric/psychological interview, parent interview and a review of the student's history can determine whether a person is at high risk for attempting suicide. There is no easy answer when it comes to identifying individuals at risk to harm themselves or others. To suggest that there is, a misleading and dangerous proposition.