Sunday, November 29, 2009
I can't believe it's been almost a year since Amanda's tragedy. Amanda is a sweet teenager in our church. I've known her since she was a little girl. When I was the children's choir director a few years ago, Amanda was always the most enthusiastic singer, always thrilled with everything we sang. Every Sunday Amanda bounded up to me to share her excitement about learning to play a musical instrument, getting a part in a school play, or learning a new song. She loved music, loved life, loved people of all ages, and loved herself. Amanda sparkled.
A year ago next week, Amanda tried to take her own life. She was depressed and distraught because of peer pressure and emotional aggression that had been occurring at school for quite awhile. I guess she felt there was no way out.
Now, Amanda suffers from acute brain damage from this suicide attempt. She is unable to communicate, and needs constant physical care. She is surrounded by loving family and friends all the time, and is cared for in a group home. But the emotional abuse that she suffered has taken its toll, and changed her life and the lives of her family forever.
Why do children and teens behave aggressively toward each other? What can we do about it? Better yet, what should we be doing to prevent it?
The excellent book, Taking Back Childhood, by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, argues that exposure to violence in the media changes the life-expectations and brain structure of children and young people. Through TV, movies, and games, children are being inundated with images of aggression, and are given no message about the actual consequences of it.
Dr. Bruce Perry, a child development expert, has identified "Six Core Strengths" that children need to have in order to be compassionate and humane:
1. Attachment. The capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds. This begins in infancy, and needs to be nurtured by parents and teachers all through childhood. Unfortunately, many things in our society, including our child care and education systems, fail to support attachment in children, and many adults do not know the importance of it.
2. Self-Regulation. Learning to control your feelings, urges, and behaviors. This process takes a long time. Most of us adults would not say we have fully mastered it. Positive discipline methods, rather than punishment, build the brain structures that help children learn to self-regulate. Healthy imaginative play has also been found to be a crucial part of the development of self-regulation. Yet all around us we see schools and families using punitive discipline, which does not help a child learn to make positive choices. Adding insult to injury, pretend play is being replaced by screen-time, so children have fewer opportunities to actively learn and practice self-regulation.
3. Affiliation. Enjoying being part of a group. Again, when children spend long hours in front of a TV or computer instead of playing with peers, they do not experience the warm and wonderful feelings associated with being a part of a group. And when children interact more with machines than with other people, they fail to learn the social skills necessary for satisfying human interactions.
4. Awareness. Thinking of others. Nature designed infants to be egocentric for a purpose: that's the best way to make sure their needs are met so our species can survive. But, as infants grow into young children, the self-absorption should gradually be replaced by an increasing awareness of the feelings, needs, and points of view of others. This de-centering takes a lifetime to achieve, but children who are treated with empathy when they are young will gradually learn to have empathy for others.
5. Tolerance. Accepting and appreciating differences. There are so many factors in our society, starting with the popular media, that undermine this strength. Children are taught from an early age by advertisements, movies, and tv shows, that people should all look and act the way the media portrays them. It takes a lot of effort on the part of wise, caring adults to counteract this powerful message, and to open children's minds to the value of human diversity.
6. Respect. Appreciating your own self-worth and the value of others. When children are treated with respect, they learn to respect others. When children are treated disrespectfully by adults, they learn to treat other people the same way.
At preschool, we work on these six things every day. It's what preschool is all about. Children are not born aggressive, but without patient and caring role models in the early years, aggressive tendencies can develop. So what about all the kids who somehow miss out on this essential learning when they are very young? Perhaps some of the kids who sent all those emotionally abusive message to Amanda had gaps in their lives where these Six Core Strengths should have been. Perhaps the adults in their lives failed to teach them the important things in life.
Amanda's family and friends have begun an effort to combat bullying in schools as a result of this tragedy. They are working to raise awareness of the problem and to seek solutions. I hope that as a society, our solutions include finding more ways to build strong and caring people from birth. In my opinion, this requires a great nationwide effort at parent education, and improvement in our care and education systems for infants and young children. It's useless to just punish kids who are mean to each other.
Friday, Dec. 11th there will be a candlelight vigil in front of City Hall at 4:00 p.m. to commemorate the one- year anniversary of Amanda's tragic incident, and to help San Jose become more aware and concerned about the problem of bullying. For more information:
Amanda's attempted suicide is a great tragedy. It's also tragic that millions and millions of infants, children, and teens are growing up in environments bereft of respect and compassion, and are learning to be abusive to themselves and to one another. How can we fix this?
Posted by ANNIE CASTLE DECKERT, M.ED.PSYCH.