Friday, 25 May 2018

C Columns

Help Stop Violence: Embrace the Lost and Disconnected Child

By Hilary Cobb

As  a  country  still  trying  to  wrap  its  head  around  the  tragic  loss  of  life  in  Florida,  I’ve  seen  many  people  debating  the  whys.  Why  have  there  been  so  many  school  shootings?  Why  are  so  many  young  people  willing  to  kill  others?  Why  did  the  shooter  have  access  to  a  gun?  We  are  a  country  of  confusion.  Is  this  a  gun  control  issue?  Is  it  a  school  safety  issue?  Is  it  a  community  issue  or  a  national  issue?

As  a  social  worker,  I  have  been  working  with  teenagers  for  12  years,  and  over  that  time,  I’ve  seen  a  disturbing  increase  in  rageful  teens.  Ones  whose  anger  has  caused  them  to  completely  disconnect  from  those  around  them.  These  are  not  simply  frustrated  or  angry  kids  who  don’t  know  how  to  express  themselves.  These  are  children  with  a  chilling  combination:  they  are  furious  at  the  adults  around  them  and  they  are  completely  disconnected  emotionally  from  their  families.

There  is  no  perceived  emotional  boundary  between  them  and  those  around  them.  As  a  child,  I  couldn’t  imagine  assaulting  my  parents.  I  remember  being  angry  at  them,  but  there  was  an  unspoken  rule  that  they  were  still  my  parents.  That  even  when  I  didn’t  like  them,  I  still  loved  them.  That  the  school  principal  and  teachers  and  adults  may  have  angered  me,  but  they  were  still  valuable  human  beings  (and  that  they  cared  about  me  at  some  level).

However,  I’m  starting  to  see  an  increase  in  kids  who  no  longer  view  adults  that  way.  Ones  who  are  so  incredibly  angry  at  the  world  that  their  fury  overrides  their  ability  to  see  others  as  human  beings.  I’ve  worked  with  9-,  10-  and  11-year-old  boys  (and  sometimes  girls)  who  have  assaulted  teachers,  headbutted  school  counselors,  beat  up  school  nurses,  and  attacked  their  parents.  I’ve  had  young  children  who  have  bitten,  kicked  and  left  bruises  and  scratches  all  over  their  siblings  and  parents  and  have  no  remorse  about  it.  Their  anger  at  the  world  consumes  them.

I  don’t  believe  these  are  sociopathic  children  who  can’t  feel  remorse.  These  are  normal  children  who,  in  better  circumstances  —  with  a  more  involved,  stable  set  of  caregivers  —  would  probably  do  well.  Many  are  intelligent  and  have  the  capacity  to  love,  but  their  disappointment  and  resentment  has  suppressed  their  remorse  to  the  point  that  they  no  longer  care  about  others.

I’ve  started  calling  these  the  “disconnected  children.”  The  ones  who  are  caught  in  the  middle of  highly  contentious  divorces,  with  parents  who  call  child  protection  and  the  cops  on  each  other  constantly.  The  9-year-old  children  who  make  statements  like,  “My  stupid  mother  owes  my  dad  $841  a  month  in  child  support,  and  she  doesn’t  pay  him  so  she  doesn’t  love  me”;  or,  “My  mom  says  my  dad  doesn’t  even  want  me,  because  if  he  did,  he’d  show  up  for  things.”  The  children,  who,  starting  at  a  young  age,  have  learned  to  lie  about  the  opposite  parent  to  teachers,  police  and  social  workers  to  assist  their  parents  in  custody  cases.

The  heartbreaking  teenagers  who  are  let  down  repeatedly  by  the  adults  in  their  life  —  the  dad who  doesn’t  show  up  for  the  scheduled  weekend  over  and  over,  the  mom  who  is  more  interested  in  fighting  with  dad  at  the  exchange  of  children  than  actually  seeing  her  children,  the  parents  who  refuse  to  show  up  at  football  or  basketball  games  because  the  other  spouse  might  be  there.

It  is  the  children  terrified  to  connect  to  adults  because  their  parents  have  a  revolving  door  of  other  spouses,  or  boyfriends  or  girlfriends.  I  had  a  young  (and  very  angry)  boy  tell  me  that  he  hated  his  mom  because  every  time  he  got  close  to  her  boyfriends,  she  would  break  up  with  them  and  he  was  stuck  grieving  that  loss.  After  several  rounds  of  this,  he  was  so  bitter  towards  his  mother  that  he  would  bite,  hit  and  kick  her  when  angry.  His  anger  overrode  his  feelings  to  the  point  where  he  didn’t  care  if  he  hurt  her.  He  felt  it  was  a  fair  payback  for  the  times  her  actions  hurt  him.

This  is  not  a  condemnation  of  divorced  parents.  There  are  many  divorced  parents  who,  even  if  they  can’t  stand  their  ex,  try  very  hard  to  remain  civil.  Who  cautiously  wait  to  introduce  a  new  boyfriend  or  girlfriend  and  manage  to  work  out  the  kinks  in  their  second  marriage  to  stay  together.  I’ve  seen  incredible  stepmoms  and  dads  work  together  and  support  and  love  these  children.

However,  I  also  see  too  many  families  where  the  children  learn  over  time  that  anger  is  the  only  protective  tool  they  have.  Where  they  fall  through  the  cracks  at  school  because  overworked  teachers  with  huge  classes  don’t  have  the  time  to  focus  on  every  single  child.  Where  harried  school  counselors  are  juggling  the  needs  of  200  of  the  most  “high-needs”  children,  but  can’t  help  all  1,000  children  in  the  school.  Where  school  psychologists  spend  their time  doing  testing  and  lack  the  time  to  work  with  every  lost  and  broken  child.  Where  they  fall  through  the  cracks  at  home  because  their  parents  are  so  distracted  by  their  own  brokenness  and  problems  that  no  one  is  nurturing  and  loving  the  children.

The  result  is  heartbreaking.  These  children  push  others  away,  and  as  their  parents  retreat  because  of  untreated  mental  health  issues,  drug  addiction,  anger  and  hurt  at  their  exes,  or  simply  too  much  time  on  their  phone,  these  children  become  more  lost  and  more  angry.  They  lack  mentors,  connection  with  adults  who  love  them,  and  the  meaningful  relationships  that  remind  them  of  the  beauty  of  human  connection.

When  you  have  angry  and  disconnected  children,  are  we  surprised  they  can  walk  into  a  school  and  shoot  their  peers  (who  they  view  as  against  them),  adults  (who  they  view  as  untrustworthy  and  against  them)  and  themselves  (who  they  view  as  worthless  and  abandoned)?

So  how  do  we  fix  this?  It  is  a  complicated  situation.  There  is  no  easy  answer.  However,  as  a  community,  there  are  things  we  can  do.

We  need  to  connect  with  the  disconnected  children  around  us.  We  cannot  expect  the  schools  alone  to  “fix”  these  children.  We  as  adults,  neighbors,  church  leaders,  and  parents  need  to  reach out.  A  program  in  Portugal  found  that  building  community  was  the  best  way  to  “cure”  drug  addiction.  What  if  the  best  way  to  cure  rageful,  disconnected  children  and  adolescents  is  the  same?

We  need  to  teach  our  own  children  to  love  others.  We  need  to  constantly  be  having  conversations  with  our  children.  How  can  they  love  that  angry  kid  who  sits  alone  in  the  cafeteria?  How  do  they  connect  when  they  sense  someone  is  hurting?  It  is  often  our  children  who  see  the  lost  children  first,  and  teaching  them  how  to  connect  and  intervene  and  tell  us,  teachers  or  principals  when  they  see  the  warning  signs  —  the  angry  rants  on  social  media,  the  whispered  words  of  rage  or  threats,  the  rumors  of  violence.

We  need  to  teach  our  children  empathy.  Many  of  the  children  I  see,  both  through  work  and  in my  personal  life,  lack  empathy.  They  spend  their  free  time  in  their  rooms,  lost  in  YouTube  and  hiding  from  the  world,  and  never  have  a  chance  to  build  empathy  and  connection  with  others.  Developmentally,  teenagers  tend  to  be  fairly  egocentric,  but  they  do  have  the  capacity  to  be empathetic.  We  as  adults  have  a  responsibility  to  teach  them  those  skills,  to  help  them  be  aware of  suffering  in  others.  (We  also  have  to  role-model  it  ourselves!)

We  need  to  support  struggling  parents.  We  all  have  friends  going  through  messy  divorces  and  breakups,  whose  marriages  are  on  the  rocks.  Are  we  supporting  them?  Or  do  we  distance  ourselves  because  we  don’t  want  to  interfere  or  get  involved  in  the  messiness?  I’m  so  blessed  to  have  mentors  and  people  in  my  life  who  can  step  in  when  I  am  frustrated  with  my  children  or my  spouse,  who  remind  me  to  stay  calm  and  not  say  nasty  things  about  my  children  or  other  adults  when  I  am  angry.  We  need  to  wrap  our  struggling  friends  and  neighbors  in  love.  To  let  them  vent,  to  gently  remind  them  not  to  involve  their  children  in  the  messiness,  to  offer  tools  and  mentorship  so  they  can  build  sustainable,  stable  relationships  with  their  partners  and  children.

So  many  of  us  watch  helplessly  at  the  news  footage  and  feel  unsure  of  where  to  start.  Start  by reaching  out  to  the  disconnected  children  in  your  and  your  children’s  lives.  Commit  to  inviting  a  kid  to  church,  to  go  lift  weights  with  you.  Commit  to  spending  a  few  extra  minutes  asking  that  awkward  kid  who  lives  a  few  doors  down  how  he  is  doing.  Help  support  programs  like  Girls  on  the  Run,  Girl  Scouts,  Boy  Scouts,  coaches  and  youth  pastors  who  mentor  those  who  are  struggling.  Volunteer  at  a  school  so  the  overworked  teachers  have  more  time  to  focus  on  the children  and  not  just  grading  and  testing.  Help  with  your  local  youth  group  or  ask  if  there  are  ways  you  can  mentor  teens  in  your  church.

We  have  an  obligation  to  connect  with  the  lost  youth  in  our  communities,  to  support  them  and  the  programs  who  are  helping  them.  Also,  support  the  foster  families  in  your  area,  so  they  can  try  to  love  the  lost  children.  Tell  your  own  children  (as  well  as  you!)  to  get  off  YouTube  and  serve  and  connect  with  those  around  you.

With  repeated  school  shootings,  we  can  no  longer  boil  this  down  to  an  occasional  “weird”  kid.  This  is  a  culture  of  lost  and  broken  children,  and  I  believe  the  problem  will  get  worse,  not  better...meaning  these  shootings  won’t  stop.  And  they  need  to.

Today,  don’t  just  hug  your  own  children.  Hug  other  people’s  children.  Connect.  Jesus  uses  the  parable  of  the  shepherd  searching  for  and  rejoicing  over  the  one  found  sheep,  and  we  have  a culture  with  many,  many  lost  sheep.  Let  us  search  out  and  love  on  the  broken  ones.  Love  is  the  answer,  but  not  just  for  your  own  little  circle.  For  all  the  children  in  our  communities.

Hilary  Cobb  is  the  owner  of  Still  Waters  Behavioral  Health  in  Middleton,  Idaho  and  blogs  about  God,  marriage  and  parenting  at  Blessed  By  His  Love.  You  can  find  her  at  www.blessedbyhislove.com

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