The Importance of Protecting Our Kids' Emotional Health

Is there a lesson in the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy? Could prioritizing and protecting our childrens' emotional health be the key?

The images of the grieving parents and loved ones affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings have weighed heavily on my mind and heart all weekend.  The thought of how many innocent lives were lost in this unspeakable tragedy is just horrifying.

It is normal to ask ourselves - why? WHY?  Why would someone do something so evil?  The shooter Adam Lanza was an innocent Kindergartener himself once, what caused him to turn into an evil MONSTER?

Our family went to Mass yesterday evening with heavy hearts to pray for everyone affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy.  Father Brian told the congregation about the legend about the Two Wolves.

According to the legend, a wise old man tells his grandson a story about life:

"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "A terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

That story really touched me.  Maybe the lesson in this is to examine which wolf are we feeding in our kids - emotionally and physically.


According to news reports, Adam Lanza had a personality disorder, but he had no criminal record, so many would say there were no signs of this to come.  But there are some clear similarities among these types of massacres:

1. Violent video games.  We learned back in 1999 from the Columbine shootings, that addiction to violent video games can be a critical risk factor for tragedies like this.  There is no question in my mind which wolf these very realistic types of games are feeding.

  • According to the NY Times, "Jerald Block, a researcher and psychiatrist in Portland, has concluded that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on their shooting rampage at Columbine High School after their parents took away their video game privileges. They “relied on the virtual world of computer games to express their rage and to spend time, and cutting them off in 1998 sent them into crisis,” he said, according to The Denver Post."
  • There was a video game connection with the Aurora theatre shooting too.  Apparently, the gunman played World of Warcraft for hours on end.  According to the Daily Mail, "A former classmate from the University of Colorado described Holmes as someone who had lost touch with reality after becoming 'obsessed' with video games."
  • It is not clear yet if there was a link to violent video games in the Sandy Hook tragedy - but according to news reports, the gunman Adam Lanza was in a technology club, and was referred to by some as a “gamer.”  Exactly how much, how often, or what kind he played - is not known.  But it has been reported that in recent years, the shooter rarely went outside the house.  What he did in there all day is not totally clear, but it would not surprise me to hear he was playing violent video games.

2. Social and emotional isolation. In most cases, gunmen who commit these types of massacres are social and emotional outcasts.  Adam Lanza had been described this way for years.  According to the book 'Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,' written by Harvard professor Dr. Kindlon and Dr. Michael Thompson, "adolescent girls in therapy struggle with too much emotion, but boys struggle alone. Boys are taught from a young age to deny and disguise their emotions. Emotional isolation becomes virtually a reflex by the time a boy reaches adolescence."  It has been reported that Adam Lanza was a social outcast for many years. Could his isolation have led to deep-seated resentments, simmering below the surface?  In the Sandy Hook tragedy and the Aurora shootings, the gunmen didn't have a criminal record.  Both were very bright, verging on genius, yet they were clearly disconnected to people and their own emotions.

3. Another possible consideration - poor diet.  Many of us know about the link between a poor diet and obesity, or an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.  But there is mounting evidence that a poor diet is linked to psychological and emotional disorders. 

One striking thing about some of the more recent photos of Adam Lanza is how thin he looked, almost skeletal.  That could be partly due to medications he was taking.  It is also common in people who are severely addicted to video games - they won’t stop playing even to eat.  It could also be an indicator of an underlying condition, such as celiac disease. Celiac disease interferes with nutrient absorption, and in addition to a host of digestive issues, it also is linked to neurological, psychological and emotional conditions - including Autism, ADHD, and even Schizophrenia.  It is impossible to know what exactly was causing the shooter to be so gaunt - but it tells me that he very likely was suffering from nutrient deficiencies. 

According to a study conducted on prisoners, micronutrient and fatty acid (such as omega 3) deficiencies are linked to increased incidents of violence and aggression. Dutch researchers repeated the study, and concluded that "behavior issues have been linked to deficiencies in omega 3 fatty acids; and that low levels of magnesium and zinc are also associated with hyperactive behavior, impaired brain development, and cognitive dysfunction."   According to Psychology Today, and a study conducted at UCSD, the consumption of trans fats is linked to aggression. Trans fats are hydrogenated oils - which are found in many processed, packaged, and fast foods. This study also discovered that consumption of omega 3 fatty acids can lower aggression. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell's Gut and Psychology syndrome (GAPS), the bacteria in our guts affect our mental and emotional health.  When we have an imbalance in our digestive system, we can have imbalances in our brain chemicals as well. 

So how as a society can we feed the good wolves in our children to help them develop emotional health? Here are some possible strategies:

1. Get rid of the violent video games.  Gone are the days when a video game was a ball bouncing back and forth across a screen. Video games of today are so realistic, with blood and gore and realistic sound effects and movements.  It is clear which wolf inside of our heads that these will feed.  Some kids also have more addictive personalities, and those are the ones to watch out for especially.

2. Be loving, involved, yet sets limits and discipline fairly.  Harvard professor Dr. Daniel Kindlon, who also wrote 'Too Much of a Good Thing, Raising Children of Character in an Age of Indulgence.' Dr. Kindlon asserts that as a society we put too much emphasis on achieving, do not set enough limits for our children, and are not spending enough quality time with them. We are thereby creating a culture where it is not acceptable to fail, and where if our children get in trouble at school, the parents march in to "fix it." Kindlon says that this is creating a generation of entitled, depressed and spoiled children. These children lack responsibility and ownership of their actions. By "fixing" our kids problems and mistakes, they do not have to own up to them, or make them right. They even do not have to feel connected to them or others that the actions have impacted, because they are being taught to deny them, or blame them on others.  The best thing we can do as parents, is to love our children, encourage them to take on challenges, even if it means making a mistake or failing. And help them to develop empathy and strong morals by taking ownership of their actions - good and bad.  Encouraging our kids to volunteer their time, give back to their community, and help others - all those things feed the good wolf inside of us, and help kids to build a strong moral compass. 

3. Feed our kids a healthy diet of "real" foods.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) which is full of processed and convenience foods is not only creating an obesity crisis, but it might just be contributing to a psychological and emotional crisis. Processed foods are lacking in key brain nutrients such as fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, without which our brain is not able to manufacture and use important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.  Is the SAD literally starving our kids' brains?  As the famous Dr. Linus Pauling said, “Every sickness, every disease can be traced to a mineral deficiency.”  Could a healthy diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids, probiotics/healthy bacteria (found in cultured and fermented foods), and key vitamins and minerals like magnesium (the calming mineral), and the B vitamins (anti-stress vitamins), and zinc help to prevent mental disorders and aggression?  It appears so according to some recent studies published in Psychology Today.

4. Enroll kids in yoga classes. Yoga has been shown in numerous studies to reduce anger and aggression, anxiety, and even can lower blood pressure and slow down our heart rate. In addition, yoga is non-competitive and inclusive, important for kids who feel isolated. Kids who participate in a yoga class just might feel like a part if something for an hour, instead of an outcast. Yoga teaches mindfulness, which is clearly something that is lacking in people who commit mass murders. And yoga helps kids to calm their minds and bodies. In addition, it is even shown to help improve school performance. At the end of yoga classes, we say thank you with the word "Namaste," which loosely translated means "the light within me recognizes and salutes the light within you." 

5. Teach our kids (especially boys) that it is okay to have and show emotions.  In almost all cases of rampages, the perpetrator is male, and an outcast or lacking in an emotional connection to others.  Harvard professor Dr, Kindlon and Dr. Michael Thompson's New York Times best selling book 'Raising Cain. Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys' is all about how as parents we can nurture and protect the emotional development of our boys as they grow into men.  As a mom of a tween son, I am realizing that my son is at a critical age in his emotional development.  So I am going to be reading this book over the holiday season.

At the end of mass last night, Father Brian offered some sage advice. He reminded us that we can’t control other people, but we can work on ourselves.  We can nurture the good wolf inside of us and within our families.  We can be loving, kind, giving, thoughtful.  And that is where we all need to start. 

I pray that the families affected by this tragedy can find the strength they need to carry on, and that our country can do what it needs to do to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.


Sara Vance is a Nutritionist and Kids Yoga teacher in the Encinitas, CA area.

Sara has filmed kids yoga videos for Gaiam TV, and offers nutritional counseling, School Assemblies, group nutrition and cooking classes, kids yoga classes, and more. Visit ReBalanceLife.com for more information.  Friend Sara Vance at ReBalance Life on Facebook.

©2012, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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