by Tom Erney
Tom is a retired family therapist who spent his 45+ years sitting with teenage males as they shared with me their personal worldviews/ their unique “instruction books on life”. He said “Perhaps my vision of what fuels the desire of school shooters may shed some light on such a horrific, tragic topic. I’ll also mention some concrete steps our community could take to decrease the probability of school shootings.”
The inner conflict and confusion that most adolescent males experience is unsettling, and can prove to be profoundly toxic. Along with the fundamental human wonderings related to personal identity…”who am I , and what is worth my time and energy?”…is added the immediacy of figuring out how to become a man. Hence, the ultimate validation among the guys is: ” You are the MAN!!!” So, boys wishing to become men look to three primary socializing institutions for guidance: their family, their peers, and society in general.
Breakdowns and contradictions in any of these three influencing forces complicate, and can even derail, the teens’ personal-social development.
Our most basic calling as humans is to find some pathway(s) to become heroic…to feel secure in the knowledge that we are both visible and valued. We long to see ourselves as participating in something of lasting worth. Oscar Wilde said it in this manner: ” To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist…that is all”. Yet, our consciousness as humans will not allow us to settle- to not matter. To not be visible and valued! We must sort out some pathway(s) to seeing ourselves as heroic( “the Man”).
This search for a personal identity that allows us to perceive ourselves as visible and valued is difficult and painful under the best of circumstances. When any/ all of the three socializing institutions in males’ lives break down( family/ peers/ society in general) around a teen male, he aches for some solid ground midst all the conflict and confusion. Many teen males learn to channel almost all of their unpleasant emotions into anger…for anger is not seen as weak in male culture. Anxiety and depression often accompany the outward expressions of anger. The inner dialogue seeking to convince you that you are helpless, hopeless, and powerless must be altered…by any means necessary: sports, drugs and alcohol, sex, comedy, music, attempting to be perfect, computer games, driving fast, etc. All these attempts are hollow, for they rarely ever provide a pathway to being truly heroic( ” I truly matter.”)
Given an American culture that has been in a stunning transformation over the past 50-60 years, there exists no clear pathway to seeing yourself as important…that your existence matters. Where is there anything that is stable, consistent, predictable? I experienced firsthand in my office the loss of almost any certainty in the lives of the teens I counseled. The impact: young men no longer need to be mentally ill to commit horrific acts. Since Columbine, shooting up your school has become a pathway to becoming visible and valued…for the demonic rage that is being expressed is a rage against their impotence and unworthiness. ” NOW you will have to pay attention to me. I will not be ignored! My existence matters!”
Their actions reflect back to us as adults that we have failed to support them in their search for personal meaning. They are the symptom…we are the problem.
Steps To Take: 1) Double the number of school counselors. Offer them on-going training and supervision as they provide a sanctuary for today’s youth. don’t burden them with responsibilities for testing, etc. Presently, most school counselors are not allowed to truly work with students and their families. 2) Personalize, not mechanize, the educational process. Presently, students feel like objects that are expected to produce desired outcomes for their parents and teachers/ the school system. 3) Establish peer programs at every school. train and supervise these youth throughout the school year. NO SCHOOL SHOOTING TAKES PLACE WITHOUT OTHER TEENS KNOWING THAT THEIR SCHOOL BEING ATTACKED IS A REAL POSSIBILITY. TEEN BOYS TALK TO OTHER TEENS. There will never be enough adults to prevent this from happening. Only the kids can do this. They have access to the social media, etc. They know the rumors.
As I have written before, we do know what to do! We choose not to do what we know. Until adults and adult social institutions begin being responsible and consistent, young people will continue to cry out for help…by any means necessary. This is on us…not on them. They will struggle mightily, and more will die needlessly, until we grow up.