Making Sense of the Senseless…

Normally around this time of year I’d be inclined to write about the anticipation and busy-ness that fall brings.  Back to school and back to work, new beginnings…the end of summer.

However, my heart breaks as I absorb the news of a 6-year-old boy’s tragic and unnecessary death at the hands of a 12 year old on Kahkewistahawin First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada.  Just 6 years old! The same age as my oldest son.  I send my deepest condolences to this boy’s family and community and my heart goes out to every parent who has lost a child to unnecessary violence. How do we even begin to make sense of the senseless? How do we explain what would cause a 12 -year old boy to erupt in such violence towards a much younger, vulnerable child?  When I heard of this tragic event my husband Jay said… “you must write about this in your tip. You need to share what you know about aggression and violence and it’s root causes”. So…here I am writing about it in the hopes that what I have learned can help those caring for children.  Please know that my intention is not to alarm anyone but to increase awareness and insight! I know all too well the anxiety we experience as parents as we send our children off to school. To be separated from them for long periods of time knowing the many frustrations they encounter during their day. The academic and social pressures that even us adults would have a difficult time with.  With bullying on the rise it is more important than ever to ensure our children are safe. Most bullying interventions being undertaken are ineffective. Attempts to address the social arena amongst peers is not working.  What is actually needed are stronger attachments between children and adults. This is where the focus should be.  Parents and care givers require insight into the children in their care and a willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure our children grow up safe and are able to reach their potential. So…I will endeavor to provide some useful information and insight to those who are interested.

Having just come out of the Neufeld Intensive III ( in August and having embarked on my first year of Advanced Studies with the Neufeld Institute where I’m learning Dr. Neufeld’s developmental attachment paradigm I have gained some insight as to why these acts of violence occur. Although my newfound insight doesn’t make it any easier to accept that such horrific acts of violence are happening in the world it does provide me with a sense of hope. It would be easy at this point to attempt to attribute blame as a way of coping with the stark reality of this incident. Some may say it was the reserve environment or perhaps the child welfare system, or the parents, or the school system, or the foster parents, residential school or video games. I can imagine that many heated conversations surrounding this tragic loss are occurring. Unfortunately laying blame won’t change a thing for either of these little boys. Of course, I understand that for reasons of social justice we must hold someone accountable, however, it becomes even more complex when the so called perpetrator in this case is a child too and as much a victim in all of this. Society wants easy answers, quick solutions and to find whoever is at fault, but as I said, this does not help us understand how to reduce and prevent violence.  There are no easy answers or short cuts here.

The reason for escalating violence, loss of empathy and a hardening amongst our youth has been a long time brewing. Research shows that youth today have 80% less empathy than they did 20 years ago. As we focus our attention on priorities other than raising our children we have stopped paying attention to some of the tell tale signs that a child’s heart is hardening. Instead we see disorders and accept diagnoses and are quick to medicate our children upon the recommendation of experts who know less about our children than we do.  All the while the developmental needs of the child are rarely considered.  At least not considered in the context of attachment and keeping a child’s heart soft and emotions in tact.  As Dr. Neufeld says “emotion is the engine of maturation”. In other words we must be able to fully feel all of our vulnerable emotions in order to fully develop and reach our human potential. Otherwise we get stuck! Once a child’s heart hardens the trouble begins. The brain atrophies upon loss of vulnerability and along with it the instinct to care. Too much wounding leads to hardening. No safe place to have one’s tears leads to further hardening. Take a child who has experienced much wounding with no caring adult to provide safety then you get a recipe for aggression and violence. This is when we start to see problems in our children such as dominance, bullying, suicide, addictions and cutting to name a few. Even worse…the child who had heart has hardened losses the ability to see trouble coming and to stay out of harms way making them easy targets. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye the loss of vulnerability in a child looks like a behavior problem whereas insight enables us to look beyond the surface to what can’t be seen nor measured. This insight is exactly what is needed in order to prevent further escalation of violence amongst our youth.

So I’ll do my best at providing a bit of insight to everyone inclined to read this tip. My hope is that if you have a child in your life that is at risk that you will be able to support that child effectively and prevent unnecessary aggression and violence.

What is at the root of Aggression and Violence?

Frustration is a root emotion that all feeling mammals experiences. It is a triggered emotion that actually cannot be avoided. When something is not working for us we become frustrated. In fact, we can be frustrated without feeling it! When our children experience frustration they need our help to identify and process it. It needs to come out. So many things don’t work for children. Just being a child is a frustrating experience let alone all the additional frustrations life offers. If a child is frustrated and has nobody to help them process it effectively it can turn to aggression very quickly. Once it has erupted into aggression it can be come very alienating for a child and ironically the way most adults respond to this aggression perpetuates the cycle. So we have a frustrated child who has erupted in aggression…biting, spiting, hitting, kicking, yelling, etc. and the adults are unwittingly responding in ways that actually increase frustration and the cycle of aggression. Eventually, this child will grow into an adult who has not developed the ability to manage frustration and will most likely be highly aggressive and even violent.

What is most frustrating for children?

What is most frustrating for a child is when their attachments are not working and they are facing separation. When I use the term separation I am referring to not only physical separation but emotional and psychological separation as well. For younger children it is harder to bare the physical separations like daycare, preschool, school, and foster care. However, whenever our children feel unloved, not favored, ignored, not important, not special, not smart enough, not belonging, not mattering, and not being understood they face separation. This is incredibly wounding for our children and has a profound and lasting impact on they way they develop. When our children face separation an alarm system is activated in the brain for the purposes of restoring proximity to those to whom the child is attached.  Once proximity is restored and the alarm system comes to rest the child often will experience higher levels of frustration. This explains perfectly why my son often displays high levels of frustration and sometimes aggression after a tough day at school. Important to note that peer attachments are a breeding ground for violence simply because they can’t provide the closeness kids need and result in elevated levels of frustration and inevitably aggression that can lead to violence if left untempered.

What is Displaced Aggression?

If our child is frustrated and does not feel safe to express this frustration and aggression within their existing attachments they will hold it for a later time and most likely let is out on a more vulnerable being and in a context in which they feel safe. A younger sibling, pet, or on the playground. For instance, when my son erupts if I punish him for it he will repress it and it will come out later.  Frustration must come out and if it can’t come out in a safe zone with caregivers it will come out in uncivilized and aggressive ways. It’s inevitable.

What do children need?

All children need an attachment to at least one caring adult who is willing to assume 100% responsibility for them. A child needs to feel unconditionally invited to exist in one’s presence. Development is a messy experiences in which we need to be able feel the entire range of emotions from disappointment to joy. Our job as adults is to create space for our children in their entirety. To help them identify and feel their most vulnerable emotions. We must come alongside our child’s frustration, make room for it and help them with learning to process it so it does not turn into aggression.  Without our help children living with many things not working for them are at much higher risk of erupting in aggression and violence. What this means for us parents is that This we too must take up a relationship and make room for our frustrations too. What we can’t make room for in ourselves neither can our children.

So…I encourage you all to continue to strive for insight into the children in your care…whether a parent, teacher, social worker or foster parent. Only insight can provide us with the understanding required to keep our children safe!

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