The “age of innocence” is over. In it’s place exists a time of troubled youth who no longer resolve problems—they end them, violently. Teens who under stress would rather terminate than deliberate.
Why has death become such an easy choice? Why is it a choice at all? Why has this choice proliferated so since October, 1997, when a sixteen year-old outcast in Pearl, Mississippi killed his mother and shot nine students (two died)? Certainly media attention cannot be discounted. Some psychologists believe these angry teens are being rewarded with nation-wide press; recognition that they are not receiving elsewhere. Ignoring a behavior will cause it to extinguish. Nobody likes to be ignored, and ignoring sensational, gut-wrenching stories such as these does not place reporters in the favor of their media moguls.
But it’s unlikely these troubled youths are killing simply to make headline news. Could it be that this rash of violence has become an accepted avenue for expressing anger among these tormented teens? Sad if this were true. For we all become angered at times. The trials and tribulations of adolescents—dating, peer pressure and status, school work, parental demands, families in turmoil—create pressures often expressed angrily in one form or another.
But killing? There is a sense about it that doesn’t make sense—a piece (or several) that’s missing. We were angry growing up in the ‘60’s. The country was in turmoil. Three of our cherished leaders were assassinated. Our youth were engaged in a war nobody wanted, halfway across the globe. We marched in protest, burned draft cards, bras, wrote songs (“War, What’s It Good For…”). But anger notwithstanding, kids did not kill kids. In contrast, kids protested the killing of kids! That was the issue being protested.
In considering factors which have made death such an easy choice one need look no further than the common denominator. Guns. And their availability to teens is alarming. They certainly can’t openly purchase them. It is therefore likely in most cases that these weapons are the sporting possessions of their parents. But to these troubled teens, guns are instruments of death—not sport. Balls, bats, racquets, clubs—these are instruments of sport. Their use does not cause death and therefore poses no threat should a child help himself to one casually left unsecured by an unsuspecting parent. In contrast, the surprising availability of dangerous weapons is an essential ingredient in the deranged chemistry that has resulted in eight highly-publicized cases of teen shootings in the past decade.
Another ingredient, adolescents spend considerable amounts of time fantasizing. They fantasize solutions to problems, defeat “enemies”, emulate favorite actors and actresses, win the hearts of “first-loves”, and slay dragons! In fantasy, there is a perception of invulnerability. A victor, you are impervious to pain and always win the day…or settle the score. As such, adolescents often vacillate between their real and fantasy worlds, sometimes blurring the line between the two. Combining these elements, kids of this age may not have a mature appreciation for the finality and the severity of their violent acts. This might partially explain striking out in a burst of violent passion without considering the consequences of their actions.
And what drives their fantasies? Perhaps another element. Developmentally, according to many adolescent psychologists, teens are at a stage of life where things—dating, social events, peer pressure, school, families—loom larger than life. Their sense of themselves—who they are, the resources, capabilities, limitations—is often quite fragile. Violence may be a vehicle for asserting themselves in those fantasies.
But there are many teens who feel alienated, hurt, frustrated who may fantasize vanquishing “enemies” and never act upon those fantasies! Why do some cross the line? It has been suggested that some severely disturbed youths, in addition to experiencing the usual adolescent trauma, seem to lack any sort of feeling for others. They are comparatively easily angered, self-focused, and if somebody does them wrong—even in the most minute fashion—they feel totally justified using any means to even the score. Sad, and very frightening. How do children come to lack feelings for others, act violently, acquire dangerous weapons? Unfortunately in these instances, the common denominator is the home. The poem, ‘Children learn what they live’ offers an important message: “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn. If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight…If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.”