Last week, a gunman in Thailand who was a former police sergeant attacked a child care center in the heart of an under-resourced community, killing preschoolers, teachers and other innocent bystanders before taking the lives of his wife and child. Ultimately, he took his own life, too. This massacre is horrific and the worst in Thailand’s history.
Mass shootings continue unabated in communities across the globe. In the U.S. we’re stuck in the chasm of polarized arguments about gun control as the tragedies pile up: Uvalde TX, Pulse Nightclub, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Sutherland Springs Church are just a few of many examples.
When community members rely solely on legislative action in response to shootings, we hand our power over to lawmakers – helping to explain why so many people feel helpless when it comes to ending gun violence. But the solution is right in front of us: each other.
Neither mental illness nor guns alone are to blame; unresolved childhood trauma is an important contributor to gun violence. As individuals and communities, preventing violence means promoting resilience that supports every child with belonging and skills to weather life’s storms.
Left unaddressed, childhood trauma poses serious threats to society – from suicide to substance abuse to mass shootings. Roughly 25–50% of children in the U.S. experience trauma before they enter kindergarten. By age 16, two-thirds of teens report traumatic experiences.
Trauma threatens a child’s sense of safety, power, and value. With stress response systems on high alert, children impacted by trauma engage in more conflict and violence, often leading to suspension or expulsion, beginning in preschool. But exclusion amplifies rather than ameliorates the problem.
Rather than alienate children from their communities, let’s help them discover healthy ways to reclaim their power, manage emotions, belong, and be accountable. Doing so will require a collective societal effort – and everyone including neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, mentors and coaches has an important role to play.
We can do it by building resilience. Resilience is a natural human process just waiting to be activated. It does not come from grit or determination alone. Rather, humans nurture resilience together with people who are responsive to our needs, and places in our lives where risk-taking and learning from mistakes feels safe. Children also develop resilience as they learn to identify and safely express emotions. Even the smallest moments of genuine connection can build resilience in a big way over time.
Without a doubt, mass shootings raise important questions about policy and legislative actions but there’s no time to wait for the partisan divide to close. While adults argue about gun control, children in our families, neighborhoods, and schools are growing up feeling angry, afraid, and alone. Certainly, legislative action to address inequitable and oppressive social conditions that breed trauma are essential – but no legislation alone can generate resilience.
Building resilience requires identifying and addressing biases that give rise to trauma and divide communities, such as racism and other forms of oppression (like classism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism and ageism).
There are communities throughout the U.S., such as the Building Community Resilience Collaboratives that are actively tackling inequities, and efforts to build cultures of care in schools, and collective impacts in communities are documenting early successes. However, much more work is needed.
Doing the work to prevent mass shootings starts with believing in nurturing resilience. By investing in small moments of connection with others in our homes, workplaces, schools, stores, libraries, and parks, we create communities where children find belonging. In communities where children belong, they learn to care, to contribute, and to create.
A small moment of connection can take on many forms. Say thank you to your child’s teacher. Encourage a preschooler’s persistence. Text your nephew. Offer to watch your friend’s toddler. Participate in cultural traditions. Celebrate a child learning from a mistake. Ask a teenager their pronouns and use them. Go with a friend to a parenting class or a substance abuse support group. Greet your neighbor and grocery clerk by name. Be a role model by asking for help when you need it. Tell your nurse, “I’m so grateful for your care.” And finally, ask one other person in your life to take similar actions.
Secondly, adults must remember that we too carry trauma and often take on the trauma of others, a process called secondary traumatic stress. We need skills and support to recognize and manage our own intense emotions (like anger or fear) before guiding a child to do the same. Thus, building resilience in children requires building it within ourselves and with one another.
No one person can prevent a mass tragedy, but without each of us working together, nothing can.