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Are Parents To Blame For Mass Shootings? It's Difficult To Trace Causality

After the initial horror of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, many began to wonder if such a tragedy could have been prevented. That is what is at the heart of the current gun control debate: is the prevalence of guns to blame? Is it a mental health issue? Is it a matter of tracking people who may have violent tendencies? Are parents to blame for mass shootings? Where is the root and cause of such devastating losses of life? If they could be found, the hopeful notion is that shootings — like the one in Orlando that has deeply affected LGBT communities the world over — could be stopped.

The shooter at Pulse nightclub was named Omar Mateen, and his father, Seddique Mateen, was quick to apologize for his son's actions and express his dismay and confusion at the violent act. In an interview with NBC News, he said, "We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident. We weren't aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock, like the whole country." Though at first it seemed very difficult to place any blame on Mateen's father, there was more to the story.

According to CBS News, Mateen had a tense relationship with his father. When his former employer Margaret Barone spoke with reporters she said that Mateen "could do nothing right in his father's eyes." Some friends suspected Mateen was gay, and the Orlando Sentinel reported that he had frequented Pulse and had a profile on a popular gay dating site. However, when his father was asked about his son's sexuality, he maintained that Mateen was not gay. He told CBS News, "To me, that is wrong." Mateen seemed to — at least outwardly — share his father's opinion of homosexuality. He would often post hateful and derisive comments on his Facebook page.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Mateen's anger and violence were not traits he developed as an adult. Childhood friends and neighbors remember him as a conflicted, troubled child. Sarah Zaidi, a friend of Mateen's sister, said, "He had lots of issues for a long time." One of his classmates, William Winkler, said Mateen was a bully and a loner. He said, "I do remember the teachers at the school wanting to get him help desperately, as he was just such an angry kid," accordingto the Morning Herald. He added that his own "mom tried to speak with his parents about him being angry, but they were very dismissive." Mateen's father, Winkler added, was known for being disrespectful and dismissive of female teachers and deaf to complaints about his son.

Though this information paints a fuller picture of the person behind this tragedy, is it enough to point the finger of blame? Many children go through school without the proper help and parent involvement. Is that enough to say they are more prone to violence? Experts say that, while one shouldn't be quick to judge, parents need to be looking out for signs of erratic, anti-social behavior. CNN spoke to Dr. Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, about parents of mass shooters. CNN asked if parents could be to blame. Gail said, "Obviously that becomes more of an ethical, philosophical question, but it is true that not enough parents are looking for flags that require intervention and treatment, and could really make a difference in terms of who is going to go on to commit violence later."

Tricia Ferrara, a family therapist, told CNN that "all parents need a better understanding of child development so we can detect when the signals show a child may be moving in an anti-social direction." So what are those signals? She and Saltz both listed anger, aggression, vengefulness, isolation, impulsiveness, and substance abuse issues as the most telling signs. Saltz said that "lots of boys are going to get angry and punch a hole in the wall and most of them are never going to do anything terrible, but some of them will and any way you slice it, punching a hole in the wall is not an effective coping tool." She and Ferrara maintained that the main takeaway is not to be afraid of labeling your child, but to step in, at any point, to help them cope with frustration and anger. Ferrara said, according to CNN:

Ensuring that children can regulate their emotions during stressful moments may be the single greatest legacy for mental health you can bestow upon them. The ability to remain connected and engaged during moments of disagreement or fear is by far the best buffering against aggressive tendencies.

In short, parents need to be involved in their child's emotional and social life. If a child — even an adult child — is posting hateful, harmful things on social media or saying them aloud, a parent needs to step in. Even if that intervention comes at a cost to their relationship, it is a small price to pay if it prevents violence down the line. But what if those hateful opinions held by the child are the same ones held by the parents? That's where things get complicated. It's difficult to recognize a harmful belief or activity, especially if it's one you yourself hold. Unfortunately, that may have been the case with the Mateens.

Lori Day, an education consultant, also spoke with CNN on the matter. She stressed the difference in coping with anger and emotion between boys and girls. She said:

While girls tend to internalize stress and harm themselves, boys tend to externalize it and harm others. It will take parents and other significant adults in the lives of boys, such as grandparents, teachers and neighbors to be the village these boys who are not thriving need.

When boys, especially, become estranged and isolated, as seems to be true of Mateen, it becomes much easier for them to lose touch with reality and act on violent impulses. (That connection to violent masculinity and a sense of entitlement within U.S. culture should be noted.) But, even so, it is impossible to lay the blame squarely on a parent's shoulders. Even if a parent is involved and observant and active, it is difficult to see long-term changes and faults in your own child. In the end, the child makes their own decision. Whether that decision could have been prevented or stopped if a parent did one thing differently is impossible to say.