My cousin Dominique has a theory about life and people. It goes a little something like this: when children don’t feel loved, nurtured, & valued, they turn out to be adults with significant emotional, psychological, or behavioral problems. For some, that takes the form of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc. What we call in mental health “internalizing” problems. Others “externalize” their emotional and mental difficulties: substance abuse, crime, aggression toward others.
The Developing Brain
I agree with Dominique. While there can certainly be a role played by genetic predispositions, the environment children grow up in shapes them, their view of themselves, and their perception of the world. Or as Dr. Phil often says to parents: “You are writing on the slate of who they are”. In the chapter I co-authored in “Empathy and Mental Illness” (Farow & Woodruff, Eds., 2001, Cambridge University Press), I wrote “If appropriate environmental input is not provided , or, if inappropriate stimuli are introduced in early childhood, executive functions under frontal lobe control, such as emotion regulation and empathy, will miss their opportunity for normal development, leaving the growing child with a functional deficit that will not easily be ameliorated later”. In other words, when we don’t love and nurture our young children, they become messed-up adults. They have difficulty managing their emotions and feeling caring toward others.
I realize these statements may be controversial and seem over-simplified. But, there is support for this viewpoint in both the scientific and anecdotal evidence. When people are not loved and valued something in their spirit gets damaged and they are more likely to eventually hurt themselves or others. As Judge Judy says: “Hurt people hurt people”. And in this way, the mind of a killer develops.
The Mind of a Killer
In the case of the Sandy Hook shooter, as is the case with most mass murderers, it is likely that there are biologically based mental health problems at birth that are made worst by a family and social environment that is harsh. I know it’s very unpopular to “blame the parents”, particularly the mother. And I also know that in the midst of tragedy, trying to understand the mind and development of the killer can seem like making excuses for him. But the reality is that we can no longer afford to continue to ignore the fact that as a culture we do not love and nurture our children enough, and that has consequences. People who are aggressive toward others are shouting out their own pain. The feel unimportant to, and misunderstood by, the world around them.
Toward a Solution
So, in addition to having a healthy debate about gun-control laws, we also need to have one about our culture of love versus anger, community versus self-centeredness. The Children’s Bureau in Washington, DC reports that in 2010 there were approximately 6 million reported incidences of child maltreatment in the U.S. Those are the cases we know about; many more occur behind closed doors. That’s just one statistic that reminds us as a nation were are doing a very poor job of really loving our kids. We say we do, but routinely choose long work hours to buy flat-screen TV’s and big houses with granite countertops, over a more simplified lifestyle that focuses our time on nurturing our children. This morning on his daily TV show Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough talked about how as a nation we have failed to learn from past similar tragedies. He is right. Making a mistake is human; making the same mistake over and over again is just plain stupid.
Let’s wake up and remember what’s really important. Be kind to one another!