February 16, 2018 by Laura Havstad
With another terrifying school shooting in Florida this week I thought I’d try and address mass shootings based on emotional process in the family and in society. Our upcoming meeting on Functioning Up: Self-Regulation in Families Under Stress raises the question of where emotional process goes when the emotional system takes over and no one is self-regulating. The result is emotional regressions in which family members are increasingly vulnerable to environmental triggers to react and act out. If guns in the environment are triggers to violent fantasies and acting out, who is responsible?
There is evidence that we live in an age of societal regression with increasing sensitivity and emotional reactivity to the social environment in the overall population. This is characteristic of emotional regressions and mass shootings are a symptom of this process. Each case is product of emotional process in families and the communities and society in which they are embedded.
A situation from some time ago in my clinical practice stimulated some thoughts. A very tall and hefty 16-year-old young man initiated consultations with me directly. He told me he was worried about his violent impulses. He had pulled a knife on a sibling as they were returning together from a concert in which they had been entertained by a mosh pit. That’s where there is a dance floor in which the dancers violently crash into one another.
The young man was also having fantasies of blowing his teacher’s brains onto the blackboard with his military submachine gun. His family collected weapons but the fact that he had the automatic military rifle was a secret between him and his mother. He had wanted the gun, and believed with his mother that his father would not approve. Without telling the father, the mother had allowed her son to purchase the submachine gun and maybe even purchased it for him.
I telephoned Dr. Bowen to ask him his view of this situation. I was afraid, and worried that there could be some deadly acting out. He told me my own life came first. Then he said the situation needed to be externalized. The mother would be the logical one to bring in but she very possibly would not have the strength to stand up to the situation. Dr. Bowen believed that the weapons were fueling the fantasies this young man was having. He also said I had a responsibility to the community. He told me I would feel better externalizing the young man’s situation and beginning with the mother was a reasonable place to start.
I asked the mother to come in with the son to talk about the violent impulses her son was struggling with and about the weapons and how they might be playing a part. I asked my husband to sit in the waiting room and alerted another psychologist in our office as well because I was wary about what might happen.
Dr. Bowen had wondered whether the young man’s mother would be too weak to act, but she was more of a self than could have been predicted. The mother was surprised to hear the situation and had the awareness to see how it might seem pretty irresponsible for her to help her son harbor a secret weapon like an automatic submachine gun. She took it to heart that doing something about the weapons collection would be important.
It’s important to know the situation you are in. There is a lot of evidence that we are in an ongoing period of societal regression. What difference does this make in the way we think about and respond to events most realistically and productively? The mass shootings that are happening almost regularly now are a symptom of the societal regression we are in.
There is a big difference in the population as to whether regulating weapons, and especially assault weapons, is a regressive or progressive thing to do. On the side that considers regulation regressive, folks think regulation abrogates rights and increases the intrusion of the regulatory government into people’s lives and would not stop the mass shootings. There is also a profit motive for gun makers who are effective lobbyists and who influence society through their organizations. Those who see increased gun regulation as going in the right direction think it is a realistic response to help stem an escalating form of domestic public violence that seems particular to the USA. The statistics support the hypothesis that the number of guns in a society is a number that correlates with gun deaths and mass shootings. Gun regulations in other countries and states that have them has kept the number of gun deaths and mass shootings much lower.
Dr. Bowen said to me that the weapons were fueling the young man’s violent fantasies. He coached me to coach a parent to take responsibility for the weapons. This is a reference point for me in thinking about this issue. The weapons culture that gets amplified by social media, fuels the violent fantasies. We know in a regression more folks act out the fantasies.
Meanwhile, families and communities and the overall society set the standards for dealing with social problems. Regulatory oversight of ownership of weapons is probably more important in a period of societal regression when more families are failing to self regulate than in a period of stability. The regression makes it harder to achieve the consensus when the population is polarized. But on this issue the polls say the population is increasingly united for common sense gun regulations.