Some children experience trauma as a daily occurrence, often with invisible wounds inflicted along their journey. Without vigilant care, these children become the bitter, abandoned, rejected casualties who one day might decide to seek revenge. Our “lost boys” have been the unfortunate victims of our patriarchal culture, breeding disillusionment and disconnection. With young boys socialized to deny their emotional selves, it’s little wonder they struggle to adapt to any expectations of emotional intimacy in adulthood. This latest incident shaking our community involved an adult, yet school shootings across the country have been the work of young men, of marginalized “lost boys.”

This underscores the need for us to think more deeply when we’re addressing how to keep our schools safe from violence. There is a parable of a lamppost that helps to make the point of this: “Joe is on his way home from a meeting one night. He comes upon his friend George, on his hands and knees, on the street groping around under a lamppost. Joe stops and says, ‘George, what’s the matter?’ George says, ‘Well, Joe, I’ve lost my car keys. I live 35 miles away and I can’t get home until I find them.’ Joe says, ‘Well let me help you.’ They try different approaches but still can’t find George’s keys. Finally, Joe, feeling really depressed, says, ‘Alright, George, let’s take a really radical approach. Where exactly were you when you dropped the keys?’ George says, ‘I was about a hundred and fifty yards up the road when I dropped my keys.’ So naturally, Joe says, ‘Why are we looking here?’ George replies, ‘The light is much better here!’” So what can we learn from this parable? Basically, we need to consider that, with so many different factors working around us, we can easily look only where the light is good — where there is funding, what grants are available, what’s “politically correct,” and where we are personally comfortable. However, the meaning of this parable tells us the real issues are farther away (“about a hundred and fifty yards up the road”), hidden in dark, uncomfortable places where we don’t really want to look. By searching only where “the light is good,” it brings us few answers beyond the appearance of taking some action.

It’s clear that we need to take a careful view of accumulated risk and opportunity in our children’s lives. This requires looking at many factors when we try understanding what leads to violence. I don’t believe we can address what, in particular, caused any of these school tragedies, but more importantly, we can examine the confluence of risk factors over the course of children’s development. The research does indicate that it is the accumulation of risk elements that ultimately leads to the damage. Some of these factors studied, which adversely impact healthy intellectual development, are: poverty; absence or loss of a parent; substance abuse in a parent; mental illness in a parent; low educational achievement in a parent; child abuse and/or neglect; exposure to racism and large size of family. When none of these risks is present, children achieve a much higher IQ. The bottom line: when children experience too many of these burdens, they simply cannot withstand the weight of the stress.

Resilience is the capacity to deal with adversity. One factor to consider with this is temperament, recognizing that children arrive with different attributes — none of which shapes a definite outcome, but more of a probability. Temperament is what each child offers us as both a possibility and a challenge. If a child’s temperament is challenging, how then do parents meet that challenge? What’s most important is to learn how our child sees, experiences, and responds to the world around him. Being mindful of keeping our children and our schools safe, we must also think about how temperament manifests in context — as in certain situations, temperament could predict violence while not in others.

Rejection is also a key factor. Children don’t thrive well when their peers reject them.This is one of the recurring themes for children who become violent. This emotional abandonment is internalized as rejection of who he/she is as a person, of whether he/she is acceptable, worthy, lovable. Experiencing rejection evokes shame, which in turn produces anxiety about not belonging or experiencing acceptance (feeling he/she will “cease to exist”). Violence is indeed a clear message to show, both to him/herself and to others, that he/she certainly exists! We must realize that positive acceptance and validation are essential for every child, that without that being provided, we can expect a negative outcome.

There are many different pathways that children follow — if they’re exposed to abuse, deprivation, rejection, abandonment, etc., we should expect there to be some acting out. How serious that behavior becomes really depends a great deal on each child’s resilience, temperament, and any positive influences in his/her life. Whenever we encounter a student with a chronic pattern of aggression, severe behavior, of violating others’ physical and emotional boundaries, he/she has come from such an oppressive background. Our real challenge in considering school safety is to create a way for understanding the unique development of every child who walks through the door of each school. We must emphasize the importance of giving each child a sense of belonging, an essential human need. When students don’t feel any connection to their peers and the adults in their school community, they will desperately look to anyone who can satisfy their compelling need to belong. Sadly, we all know that lonely, alienated students will gravitate towards other students feeling the same way.

One of the most powerful elements in determining whether students will be more hopeful and less aggressive is the presence of at least one adult in their lives who believes in them. The late psychologist Dr. Julius Segal referred to this as the “charismatic adult,” defining that person as “an adult from whom the child gathers strength.” The importance of children “feeling that there is at least one adult in the school environment who knows and believes in them must never be underestimated.” Such an adult serves as “a protective factor, providing support that lessens the probability of students feeling anonymous, of joining groups with other alienated students, and of resorting to outbursts of anger and violence.”

Further, research shows us that having a positive relationship with an adult, who is available to provide support when needed, is one of the most critical factors in preventing student violence. In the absence of a positive relationship, students often experience discipline and rules as “arbitrary impositions to be broken.” If our goal is to teach our children about respect and dignity, to let them know we are always there to listen and care for them, we must ensure they experience our attempts as authentic, compassionate connection with enduring commitment.