Skip to main content

To help kids with tragedy, slow down, listen

By Michael Y. Simon, Special to CNN
updated 4:26 PM EST, Sat December 15, 2012
Candles burn next to a lighted tree at a makeshift shrine in Newtown, Connecticut, commemorating the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Candles burn next to a lighted tree at a makeshift shrine in Newtown, Connecticut, commemorating the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
Reaction to Newtown school killings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Simon: We don't know how to make sense of tragedy, but our kids want our guidance
  • He says media accounts come faster than brain can process complex emotions, empathy
  • He says study shows deluge of news interferes with ability to help others with their emotions
  • Simon: To respond to suffering of kids, loved ones: slow down, give persistent, calm attention

Editor's note: Michael Y. Simonis a psychotherapist, school counselor and founder of Practical Help for Parents, a support organization for parents, educators and mental health professionals. Simon is also the author of The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager (Fine Optics Press, 2012).

(CNN) -- I don't have the answers.

Under the weight of mystery, loss and grief, most of us long for healing and look for answers. After hearing of the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut, I asked a friend, the principal of an elementary school, how the children and parents there were doing.

"There was a different feeling and a much longer line than usual to pick up the kids," he said "Hugs held longer, smiles broader, more patience all around; these parents were mindful of the privilege of picking up their children today."

Michael Simon
Michael Simon

Not including the tragic killings at Sandy Hook, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence lists over 170 school shootings in the United States since 1997, prompting many to describe the tragic shooting as part of an epidemic of gun violence in America.

How do we make sense of these incidents and their antecedents and envision a better future? I don't know, and neither do many of the so-called experts, but that hasn't stopped them and the mass media from weighing in very quickly.

Opinion: Parents' promise: I will keep you safe

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We've seen this all before: Media outlets rush to feed the voracious hunger of the 24-hour news cycle, reporting on instant theories and repeating rumors and mistakes, sometimes supplied by well-meaning law enforcement and school officials eager to provide information to anxious parents. Pundits rush to defend or denounce gun control or render judgments about the mental health system.

Tweets and texts fly, fingers wag in consternation at all those who got the facts wrong. Theories, reasons and blame pile up. Unbridled arguments break out -- check the comments under this piece, and most other pieces online.

Meanwhile, our young children are watching, listening and looking to us for answers.

They need us calmly close by, a loving, attentive presence quietly assuring them that their world will not change. It scares us to our depths because we know we cannot really promise that.

Opinion: Mourn ... and take action on guns

To calm a shocked nation, President Barack Obama appeared on television as events were still unfolding in Newtown. After expressing heartbreak for the slain children and their parents, he spoke of the parents whose children had survived: "Their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain."

If there are no words, then what is there? The president's tearful reaction was notable for several long pauses as he struggled to prevent his feelings from overwhelming the need to communicate to a nation in grief.

Obama's pauses were bookends to his observation that "our hearts are broken today." They point to necessity of time for any deep, effective, moral and compassionate response to pain and loss. A 2009 prize-winning study done by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Antonio Damasio and their colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California could be seen as a kind of scientific exploration of what it means to have "our hearts broken."

Support crucial for kids after trauma

Immordino-Yang put it simply:

Obama: 'We have to come together'
Mom: Teacher saved son from bullets
Shooting suspect's home

"The poets had it right all along. This isn't merely metaphor. Our study shows that we use the feeling of our own body as a platform for knowing how to respond to other people's social and psychological situations."

Martin: Now is the time to talk guns, mental illness

But the speed of our digitally mass-mediated lives is not conducive -- according to Immordino-Yang and Damasio's work -- to experiencing the "nobler instincts" of empathy and compassion in response to violence and human suffering.

The USC study demonstrated that when people heard stories depicting physical pain, the pain centers of their own brains activated very quickly. But empathizing with stories of psychological pain took much longer. Seeing or hearing stories of physical injury and death -- the stock in trade of much media -- does deeply and quickly move us. But the higher emotions and the capacity for an ethical response, compassion and empathy, "are inherently slow."

Immordino-Yang surmises, "For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people's social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection." She warns that if the flow of information and news is too quick, it can interfere with the experiencing of emotions about other people's psychological states, a problem she argues has "implications for your morality."

By slowing down and recognizing the need for time to ethically respond to suffering, we see the faint echoes of an answer to the question of whether our children can live in this imperfect world and still feel free and hopeful (and whether we can do the same).

Manuel Castells, Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC, thoughtfully summarized Damasio's study: "Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention."

How to help

Persistent, quiet, calm attention: This is what our children need from us in the wake of this horror, and what we owe one another as we stumble along trying to figure out what to do about it all. It suggests that deep listening, rather than quickly speaking (or cajoling, warning, or advising our children and each other) may provide the time we need to experience our "nobler instincts" in the face of all-too-human grief and loss. I don't have the answers. But I suspect that answers will come — slowly.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Simon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT