Another school shooting has yielded new fears for the safety of our children and more questions about how we should respond as a nation to what amounts to a crisis of violence. One quick glance at your Twitter feed or your Facebook account will yield a myriad of opinions about what we should do next. To some, it seems clear that we should enact stricter gun control laws. Others feel we need better identification of individuals who are prone to commit these evil acts. As a psychologist who has worked with adolescents and families for years, I can’t help but wonder about the deeper causes for this problem. What has happened in our culture that has created an environment in which young people have both the intention and the motivation to walk into a high school and shoot innocent students? Not just once or twice, but over and over again for the past couple of decades. After all, we have had access to guns for hundreds of years, and automatic weapons since the turn of the century. And the problem of evil has been vexing us for millennia, which disqualifies this as a valid explanation for why the frequency of school shootings is a relatively new phenomenon. So, what has shifted in the psyche of our young people that has primed the pump for this kind of violence and what can we do to prevent it in the future? I offer the following observations as perhaps a partial explanation of what’s going wrong in the American adolescent culture and what we might be able to do as a community to address it. My hope is that these thoughts will start a conversation that might run against the typical political talking points of liberal gun control and the conservative focus on the mental status of the shooter. Hopefully this conversation will be reparative in nature in that it will help answer the question “Why is this happening?” and can prompt a proactive response that one day yields a long-term solution. Accordingly, I welcome your feedback, questions, and conversations.
The problem: Lack of Self-Worth and Positive Coping Skills
What has happened to our kids? Not only are they shooting up schools, they are depressed, anxious, and stressed at alarming rates. Some research indicates that five times as many high school and college students feel anxiety and other mental health issues when compared to adolescents from the Great Depression era. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents. Drug overdoses are skyrocketing. While some might say that something has shifted in the adolescent culture to create unhealthy teens, I would argue that our kids are merely reflecting the culture around them. Much has changed in the last generation or two, starting with an incredible over focus on materialism in the 80’s and 90’s and an explosion of technology at the turn of the century that has driven what can only be described as a self-focused entitled worldview. The ethic of loyalty, character, and sacrifice that this country was built on has been exchanged by many people for an identity based on the accumulation of material things, picture perfect social influence, and an unbridled belief that we all deserve special privileges. We have indeed raised a generation of individuals who have unrealistic expectations about how others will treat them and who don’t have the coping skills to deal with the negative emotions that are a part of life in a broken world. While many (but not all) adults have the ability to see through the cultural lies of materialism and egocentricity, adolescents have a natural tendency to feel invincible and narcissistic and are often left with a deep sense that they have been cheated of the life they have been promised by the Facebook gods. The result is nothing less than hopelessness. Hopelessness that yields desperation. And while desperation can yield a number of unhealthy behaviors, it almost never yields the empathy that would prevent the hatred toward the self and others that defines the violent acts we see playing out at alarming rates.
The Solution: Investment and Love
Liberals and Conservatives are holding each other responsible for the latest school shooting and sticking to their talking points about stricter gun laws or the mental illness of active shooters. The truth is our teenagers don’t just need better gun legislation or better access to mental health care, they need better adults. Now let me be clear: I’m not blaming the parents or teachers of the shooter for what has happened. I’m blaming all of us collectively for our lack of investment in our kids and for the anger and self-centeredness we have modeled to them for decades. If we want the madness to stop once and for all, I offer the following suggestions as a starting point for us as a community.
- Invest fully
The solution starts with us. It starts with you and me and every other willing adult throwing our political stones aside and running toward the hurting and the broken and demonstrating what it looks like to invest in another person. Of course, we won’t all have access to potential school shooters that we can mentor into a different future. But we can all invest in the children around us, the children who belong to our neighbors and who live in surrounding communities. Pay attention, listen, draw healthy boundaries, and speak the truth in love to the teens in your sphere of influence. Teach them how to handle conflict with integrity, not unbridled anger. Explain to them that failure is a part of life that we all experience and demonstrate for them how to respond to the criticism of others with character and confidence.
- Model Love
We can’t expect our teenagers to just do as we say. That’s not how they learn. They learn by watching adults handle the problems of everyday life. So, the question I will leave you with is this: What are you modeling to our young people about how to handle life? How do you respond to criticism, to those who have wronged you, and to disappointment? Do you respond with anger or hate, or do you respond in love and empathy? Be careful, because our young people are watching. And they need older, wiser invested adults in their life to show them how to live a life that will yield empathy for others, self-respect, and love in the face of adversity. They need adults to step up and model something other than the materialism and self-centeredness that they have seen in movies, on the internet, and in their homes. Our children need us to model to them how we should treat people when we feel misunderstood and taken advantage of. They need to see us model love, even for our enemies. And in the end, maybe we can change the tide of our culture and teach our kids the most important lesson of all: Love truly does conquer all.