As much as people want to know the motivation of the alleged perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., it's impossible to fully comprehend exactly what was going through his mind. This horrific and senseless act, though, is best explained by looking at common characteristics of individuals who commit such crimes.
Contrary to what one may think, these people don't just snap. Usually the event comes after intense mounting stress and whether it's the Aurora, Colo. movie theater massacre, the shooting at Columbine High School, or the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it's usually well-planned and even methodical. The person usually suffered a recent loss, feels rejected by society and as though they don't fit in. They might blame others for their plight in life and there's often a long history of public humiliation and feelings of victimization, isolation, and alienation. They often blame others for their problems and lack basic coping skills. Further, there's almost always a significant mental health history and very often with it an underlying personality disorder (for Lanza, this is not yet confirmed). Preoccupation with violence is common, as are depression, anger, and an overwhelming desire for revenge. All this leads the killer to a tipping point of catastrophic proportions.
Although no words will make all the fear go away, it's important for a conversation to occur. This is particularly essential for children. People should know that the overwhelming majority of people with the characteristics outlined above do not go on to commit such heinous crimes. In the mind of a child, a dramatic shift occurs after such a tragedy: One minute a child is focused on things such as playing with friends, thinking about what gifts they might get for the holidays, or listening to their favorite music -- only to be followed by utter fear, shock, and horror. Thoughts such as "Will I be next?" are common as his or her life is now filled with uncertainty.
Reassurance is what a child needs during this time. Reassurance that Mommy and Daddy aren't leaving them. Reassurance that law enforcement is doing everything to prevent similar crimes, and reassurance that there are more good people in the world than evil. Kids may not start a conversation about this, so it is important for the adult to take the initiative. Let the kids talk openly and freely, and be honest about the situation.
Finally, limit exposure to the media coverage, as graphic images can reactivate a fear response and lead to more anxiety. Try as best as possible to participate in family activities such as movies, dinners, and games. This togetherness will provide a much needed sense of strength, belongingness, and normalcy.
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