Editor’s Note: This essay’s title metaphor, “living with the bear,” was likely drawn from the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. Dr. Harris expands on this idea in her TED talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime.”
“It’s OK, Mommy. I’m right here with you.” As Diamond Reynolds live-streamed video of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, dying next to her, her 4-year-old daughter was in the backseat consoling her and witnessing firsthand what all of us were seeing live. Every one of us became a witness to his death. Horrific moments like this one, which we continue to witness, stay with us. They stay in our psyches. Now just imagine what these moments are doing to the children who see them.
A school social worker once described trauma to me as a “bear”: “If you were to confront a bear,” she said, “your adrenaline and cortisol would spike, your brain functionality would be impaired, and it would take you a long time to recover from the incident.” Then she asked my colleagues and me to think of our students when she said, “What happens when the bear lives with you?”
I see the “bear” in our society right now as violence played out on social media—and it’s everywhere. There is immediate access to real, live violence. From videos that widely circulate of people fighting on the street, to live-stream footage of deaths involving citizens and police officers, instant access via social media is available to all of us, our youngest eyes included. The long-term social and psychological effects of repeatedly witnessing traumatic events through social media have yet to be seen.
As adults, we struggle with pressing play and viewing these images. We process them in our dreams and speak about them with those close to us. We see the images —the violence—with cognitive tools of adulthood that help carry us through the experience. So how do our young people, then, process so much violence?
There is evidence to suggest that young children have a harder time distinguishing fantasy from reality—for instance, seeing cartoon violence and believing it is reality. But what about when it is reality? We cannot tell our children it is make-believe or “just a movie.” What then, will they infer from almost daily videos of people being shot, killed and beaten up? We know that many young people have immediate access to the internet and platforms like Facebook and Instagram. And while a case can be made for limiting access, we know that kids are not naïve and they will look.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “Experiencing a prior traumatic event does not toughen up a child. Instead, the effects add up.” This means that, as children repeatedly witness violence, they are apt to have more intense reactions to another trauma. And for students who are already dealing with trauma at home or at school, these experiences layer on top of each other and can significantly impact their development.
There’s something to be said for bearing witness to this time, however. In a recent New Yorker piece, Allyson Hobbs writes about the significance of looking, referencing Emmett Till and his mother’s wish for the world to see what had happened to him. His death and the uproar surrounding it are widely viewed as helping to spark the modern civil rights movement. Witnessing the seemingly constant horrors that are happening in our society is a call to action for many people, young and old. But we have to be aware of the potential effects of what we—and the children in our schools—are seeing.
Violence, police brutality and abuse are all teachable issues—if we’re prepared to teach them. We can learn how to recognize the signs of the bear in our classrooms and to react appropriately. We can lead powerful, honest conversations with our students about these traumas and begin the healing within school walls. The adults in students’ lives can address these issues with students in a variety of ways, but we must make ourselves aware of the resources that can help.
Mascareñaz is the director of Equity Affairs for Wake County Public Schools and a former teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.