I’m saddened by the recent shootings at Chardon High School in Ohio. At least three young lives were lost, and many more kids traumatized. One young man will carry the burden of violence for the rest of his life – and it all might have been prevented by one simple strategy: allowing kids a safe outlet for their feelings.
In spite of a workforce of thousands of therapists, and at least as many self-help books, American culture does nothing to encourage acknowledgement and expression of feelings, even though they are a very basic aspect of human nature. We have turned the repression of emotion into a high art, and our children are suffering as a result. Bullying, violence, and suicide are all cries for help that demonstrate the profound emotion churning under the veneer of coolness our kids present to the world.
Some kids flock to violent movies to vicariously experience the emotions they’ve been taught are inappropriate to feel. Others stuff everything down inside until it explodes, creating a feeling of being out of control that can result in violence toward others, or turned on the self. Kids experience emotions very intensely, and these potent emotions need an outlet if we hope to reduce incidences of violence and suicide in our schools.
I wonder how many kids would sign up for a class called “Emotions 101.” Or who might show up to an after-school support group in hopes of finding a safe place to have their angst and their fear about growing up into a broken world heard and validated. Post-trauma support is too little, too late. It doesn’t save lives; it just makes a stab at cleaning up what should not have happened in the first place.
Our country’s tradition of emotional repression has created a skyrocketing incidence of emotion-based disease, such as hypertension, ulcers, IBS, and heart attacks, as well as an extremely high rate of depression – somewhere between 17 and 21 million diagnosed cases per year in our country, according to the World Health Organization.
We need to find ways to empower our kids and help them develop a strong sense of self, so they don’t grow up to become another generation of depressed Americans. We need to allow them to express their frustration and anger, their fear and pain, in healthy ways that don’t injure others, physically or psychologically. We need to learn how to express our feelings as adults, as well, to keep ourselves healthy and aware.
And most importantly, we need to change the American “stiff upper lip” tradition. We can’t hope to create a safe, supportive society that cares for and meets the needs of all its citizens without opening our hearts and letting go of our anger and pain. And that requires acknowledgment that we are feeling humans as well as thinking humans, that emotions need to be expressed, and that as long as feelings are expressed in ways that don’t harm others, they are a normal and acceptable aspect of being human.
Katherine Mayfield is the author of The Box of Daughter: Overcoming a Legacy of Emotional Abuse, two books on the acting business, and a book of poetry, The Box of Daughter and Other Poems, which was written as part of her process of healing from an abusive childhood. She has written for local and national magazines, and blogs on Dysfunctional Families on her website, www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.