“Hey, did you hear that there was another school shooting today down in Texas?” my daughter casually mentioned as we were coming home from school on Friday, in a tone similar to that that she would have used if she had said, “Hey, did you hear that Khloe Kardashian named her baby True?”
Yes, school shootings are still making the front page news, but they are becoming so commonplace that the shock factor is beginning to wear off, not unlike our dulled senses when it comes to political scandal.
As an educator, I have turned my attention to helping people to understand the brain’s response to challenge. Recently, I am particularly focused on teaching the brain science of addiction, anxiety, depression, and violence, and trying to help explain how we are priming kids brain’s for mental health issues. Sometimes I feel like Chicken Little, running around telling people that the sky is falling. With each news article about teen suicide or the next school shooting, I become more desperate, because I know that there is an answer: the brain science points to it. It is not the easy answer. There is no quick-fix. But there is an answer.
We need to proactively teach kids resilience in response to challenge
When the brain senses a threat, it switches control to the limbic system, which is in charge of our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is a survival mechanism; it is what gets us out of the way of the oncoming car and is responsible for the fact that we still exist. As we mature, we are supposed to gain more control of that response, enabling us to over-ride the “fight, flight, or freeze” when we are not in immediate danger. Throughout childhood, we should be learning to handle challenges. As we navigate those challenges, we become more resilient, which is critical in being able to over-ride the stress response. It is kind of like our brain saying, “Hey, I got this!”
Fight, flight and freeze can be roughly translated to violence, anxiety and depression. When we do not learn to handle challenges, we don’t learn to become more resilient and we are more likely to overreact to threat responses and stay in that fight-flight-freeze response. One of the best ways to prevent and alleviate violence, depression and anxiety? Proactively teach resilience.
2) We need kids to practice delayed gratification and purpose
Think about brain chemicals as being little text messages to the brain. Dopamine is a message that says “Oh, that felt good—do it again.” We can get dopamine in a number of ways, in either smaller doses or bigger doses. When we get a ping on our phone saying that we got a “like” on our instagram post, it is like a little dopamine chocolate chip. If we struggle hard toward a goal, working hard, failing, and continuing to work until we succeed, we get a much larger burst. You know, that “Yess!!!” feeling.
If kids are not exposed to opportunities to work hard toward a goal and struggle until they succeed, they never experience those larger bursts, and so they never get the dopamine text message telling them how good it feels. This limits them to those immediate, quick rewards, which can be lead to addictive tendencies. I often like to tell parents that “Self-esteem is not a gift you can give to your kids, it is a neurochemical response you rob them of when you do things for them that they can do themselves.”
The brain needs neurochemicals, particularly during adolescence. When we are rob them of experiences that release dopamine (reward), serotonin (self-confidence), oxytocin (belonging), and adrenalin (thrill), we rob them of a sense of purpose. With no sense of purpose, we are at risk for addiction, anxiety, depression and violence.
3) We need to teach “grey”
Right now, the world seems so black-and-white. We are more partisan then ever. This actually presents a major threat to the brain. Our brains respond in the same way to social threats as they do to physical threat. So in the same way that our brain switches control to the limbic system when we see that on-coming car, it switches control in response to social threats.
REACTS is an acronym that I use for the social threats and rewards for the brain: respect, equity, alliances, control, territory and similarity. The more partisan we become, the more threatened our brains become, making us more vulnerable to fight, flight and freeze (violence, anxiety, and depression), and the less trusting we become of one another. We need to model and teach that there are colors and grey in the world, it is not black and white.
This last point is particularly important in regard to school shootings. There has been so much distrust built up between partisan parties that we are unable to have productive conversations, which undermines any progress toward passing any legislation that might be helpful in regard to mental health supports or reasonable gun laws. When the brain experiences trauma, it imprints that trauma on the memory center, so that we are able to react more quickly in response to future trauma. We are a nation that has been traumatized, and, therefore, our brains are set to react, rather than think, trust and work together towards a solution. When we react, or brains do not have access to our highest level thinking skills, which are required for collaboration, impulse control, and problem-solving.
When I was young, my favorite poem was The Box by Lascelles Abercrombie, which uses a box and a ball as a metaphor for the horrors of war. In the poem, there is a message of hope: “Now there’s a way to stop the ball, it isn’t difficult at all. All it takes is wisdom, and I am absolutely sure that we can get it back into the box and bind the chains and lock the locks,” but it is followed with, “But no-one seems to want to save the children anymore.”
Each time I read about a school shooting, those lines comes to mind. There is a way to stop this trend. It is not an easy fix, and there is no quick solution. It takes wisdom, and patience and hard work. It takes working together. It takes compromise. It takes setting priorities of long-term benefits over short-term gains. It takes understanding. None of these is easy, but the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Do we want to save the children?”