Mass Killings as a Social Phenomenon – The Importance of Social Connections for Mental Health

handgunWe all watched in horror as the details of what took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School unfolded. We saw small children rush into the arms of their crying parents and cried with the parents whose children would not be returning to them.

While this shooting touched us deeply due to the young age of most of the victims, this is far from the only mass killing that has occurred recently. In 2012, there were at least 16 other mass shootings in the U.S. where the victims were chosen randomly. Although some criminologists may disagree, it appears that mass killings are increasing in this country. The response to Sandy Hook has largely focused on gun control legislation, yet examining the backgrounds of the shooters may prove more effective in preventing these types of killings.

Changing Focus

Researchers have begun examining characteristics of these perpetrators to identify potential background factors associated with their later behavior. Currently under scrutiny is the breakdown of community connections within our society. Personal interactions have lessened with the wide spread use of mobile technology to communicate, shown to lead to greater social isolation. Certain individuals are more vulnerable to the negative effects of social rejection as it effects their ability to cope with stress. This process however, must be addressed in childhood.

Social Learning

When faced with stressful situations, we all have different ways of coping. We may take a long bath, distract ourselves with a book, call a friend or exercise. The key is to regulate our emotions through previously successful methods.

When faced with stress, those without appropriate coping strategies or social support may respond with aggression resulting from excessive negative emotionality. This underscores the importance of social learning in developing the ability to cope with stress adaptively.

We begin to learn appropriate responses to stress from imitating others. Family members may also suggest options to help us cope when we’re agitated. As we age friends help us cope with stress by listening, validating our reactions and supporting us. From such interactions we learn the value of relying on trusted others to cope with what we perceive as unfair.

Humans are social beings and we look to others to determine how to solve problems or deal with negative emotions. When friendships begin to form we develop empathy and perspective taking skills, such that we perceive when those we care about are suffering and try to help while they do the same for us. Meaningful relationships are critical when faced with stress

JPPositive and Negative Social Learning

Children learn adaptive coping skills from knowledgeable adults in their lives who recognize signs of stress and excessive emotionality. These adults teach children to identify feelings of stress and help them learn to modulate their emotions adaptively. Adults may also model this behavior, reinforcing the learning process.

Sometimes however, children lack positive role models from whom to gain these skills and never learn to recognize their feelings or cope well with stress. They lose control of their emotions and act out causing others to avoid them. This lack of acceptance can confuse children who can’t differentiate their behavior from that of their peers. These children often become isolated, and they aren’t exposed to the social feedback necessary to learn social skills.

Detachment grows as they try to teach themselves not to care about being accepted. However, since all children crave acceptance they will intermittently attempt to interact. With no new skills to use however, peers continue to reject them and they respond by increased aggression.

These children often come from homes where adults are frequently absent or if present, model negative coping such as responding to problems with violence. This reinforces children’s emotional dysregulation. Often also rejected by other adults such as teachers, these children are unlikely to get the help they need resulting in a pattern of responding to stress with aggression in adulthood.

Helping Children Reduce Stress and Cope Adaptively

Anecdotal research indicates that negative situations experienced by children who become mass killers weren’t recognized or validated, and they never learned to cope adaptively with stress. Some techniques to help children learn to deal with life problems include:

Acknowledgement-Acknowledging children’s feelings, first attending more to the children’s experiences and less to the resulting behavior can establish the sense that adults are listening. Dismissing children’s experiences and emotions sends the message that adults don’t believe their experiences are important, blocking future trust and openness.

Once children believe adults understand them, they can be taught how to use adaptive coping strategies to deal with negative emotions resulting from stress. After they can modulate their emotions, they are ready to learn problem solving skills for different stressful situations. These new skills can provide the basis for teaching social skills to help children reintegrate into their peer group.

Noticing the Positive-Socially isolated children generalize their sense of failure to every aspect of their lives. Thus, it’s important to notice and praise children for the good things they do to lessen their sense of defeat and lack of confidence.

Providing Appropriate Modeling-Adults need to model the same strategies they are teaching children for coping with stress. This is especially important for interpersonal problems such as family disputes, arguments with friends, or interpersonal problems at work. If a problem can’t be solved, coping with the negative emotions associated with the situation can be modeled.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of social support in creating resilient adults. The harmful effects of poor social support and protective effects of positive support on mental health are firmly established. As a number of mass shooters have been determined to suffer from mental illness, learning how to create a positive social network from a young age can be a critical factor in preventing later disaster.

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