The beautiful, graceful anchorwoman asked me on her live newscast, “What is going on? How can these youths kill someone out of boredom?” I paused. Who can really answer this probing question without direct and detailed knowledge of these young offenders? Yet, I also was not surprised or shocked by the tragedy — simply and enormously sad for the victim and his family, for the perpetrators of this crazy act, for all of us. Unfortunately, I believe that such senseless youth violence could occur anywhere, anytime in our society, and here’s why.
Most of us think of at-risk youth as “those kids from that neighborhood.” But these are our kids. We share the same community. As adults, we have a responsibility to all young people, not just our own. Our children will not learn to value community if we do not model this level of social consciousness and respect. Not enough adults are passing on the importance of community well being. This affects all youth, who developmentally must learn to give back and participate and truly care about other human beings that they encounter daily.
Encouraged by the media outlets, we rush towards catastrophe when it occurs—but we don’t rush with similar alarm to prevent youth violence. We come together to mourn, we leave flowers and teddy bears, and comfort the victim’s family, but often fail to make sure every child in our midst is happy and well adjusted. I actually suspect that too many children, especially those coping with mental health issues, do not fully recognize what’s real. A social media network has different rules than a real community. Some youth may not understand what it means to shoot somebody, what it means to be dead. They may be experiencing a virtual disconnect from reality. Death is just a word.
Boredom is real, though; it may serve as a psychological defense in adolescence. Most often adults do not see boys as vulnerable. We say, “man up,” “don’t cry,” “stop being a girl.” As a result, some boys embrace machismo to such an extent that they push their depression and anger inside and it erupts. If life is not fulfilling, one gets bored. Boredom also serves as a mask. We have to look beyond this shocking and unacceptable justification to explore the quality of their lives. We all make choices based on what we have to lose. What if you feel you have nothing to lose? What if you have been abandoned, neglected, abused? Some young people don’t know how to be alone, for even a short time, and be satisfied; they seek constant stimulation or negative peer recognition.
The anchorwoman wanted to know the signs and what one can do. Again, I paused. There are lists of mental health and behavioral indicators that point to the critical need for referral to a mental health professional, e.g., obsessive preoccupation with violent imagery or fantasy, bullying, hurting animals, sudden change in friends, withdrawal. But prevention speaks to how we as adults can step up and more responsibly assume our roles as elders. What are the signs? When adolescents feel they have no adult in their lives that they can trust. When an adolescent has no hope, no goals, no aspirations—when they cannot picture themselves as a happy adult, when they can’t picture themselves as anything. If an adolescent can’t identify one person who cares about them. If he or she does not feel loved. If there is no active involvement in work, school, sports, or community service. Youth need to feel an important connection to something and someone. This is essential for a productive transition into adulthood.
Despite their protests, teens need adults now more than ever in our information overloaded, complex society with its competing and unclear values. As the adolescent seeks to define self and establish related belief systems, he or she does not benefit from premature emancipation. Adults need to hold adolescents closer, even while they’re pushing off, and need to spend TIME with them. Interact. Model appropriate behavior. Too many parents do not really know who their children are—or know their friends. Too many adults do not know the youth who live in their neighborhood, either, nor support the parents who can’t raise children on their own; all parents need responsive institutions, e.g. workplace, health and mental health, schools, faith-based, and community based, to assist with their challenging jobs.
I worried that maybe I had talked too much. I was so thrilled that the newscaster wanted to know. That she really cared. She gracefully allowed me to conclude with my recollection of an interaction I have observed too frequently. The parent orders a pizza with his son in a local restaurant. One half pepperoni for the son; the other half veggie for him. Then Dad retrieves his iPhone and begins to text someone. Moments later, his son finds his phone and does the same. In between their respective activities, they silently eat the hot pizza.
Another missed opportunity.