© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
I have tremendous empathy for the children, parents, teachers and staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. They became the “targets of blame” for a young man with serious problems and no rational connection to his targets, except that they were vulnerable like him when he decided to become powerful. In the coming weeks, we will hear a lot about the shooter. But my concern is more about the next shooter. He is watching and learning from today’s news.
The shooting in Connecticut is part of a pattern – and there will be more. We just don’t know where, but they will occur more frequently unless we understand the pattern to these events. Ironically, it appears that we are creating the problems we’re trying to solve.
We know that these are mostly young men (15-25), who are socially isolated, often children of divorce, who have some mental health problem that is untreated. The solution to their frustrations, failures and fantasies is violent power. They have easy access to weapons. It’s only a question of who will be their “target of blame.” Here are suggestions for prevention:
Understand “high conflict” personalities. They become preoccupied with blaming others for the problems, conflicts and deficiencies in their own lives. They can look fairly normal on the surface, but they have too much all-or-nothing thinking inside, often-unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors or solutions to problems. Many of them have personality disorders, which means that they are stuck in defensive thinking, have chronically dysfunctional relationships and regularly feel powerless. Those with personality disorders (or lesser traits) who focus on a specific individual or group as their “target of blame” have “high-conflict” personalities and will remain stuck in their way of thinking, despite negative experiences. They usually have some combination of in-born and childhood problems that grow over time. Some may also have an onset of paranoid schizophrenia, which occurs in their early 20’s. If you see someone’s social behavior becoming odd, speak up about it to someone. They need mental health treatment.
More mental health services. In the 1980’s, I worked in a psychiatric hospital with adolescents, including some who were physically abusive toward other children or their parents. I remember one 13-year-old boy who weighed more than his mother, and he had grown used to hitting her when he was upset. Yet with our intensive hospitalization for him, including individual therapy, family therapy (that was my job) and activity therapy, he learned to control himself much better and as far as I know he has lead a positive life. However, such services have been cut. Neither insurance companies nor governments care as much about kids like this anymore. Until this changes, we will have more incidents of out-of-control youth who feel vulnerable acting out in dramatic and desperate moments. Some will simply kill themselves (adolescent suicide is way up right now) or others.
Don’t allow social isolation. Teenage boys – especially from divorced families – are at a higher risk of becoming socially isolated and absorbed in fantasy video games of great power and violence. It helps them compensate for feeling weak and vulnerable – and having no friends. Today’s families are much smaller and in the case of divorce, often one child lives alone with one parent. In many of the mass shootings over the past 30 years, the young man has been a child of divorce with the other parent almost totally out of his life. The problem isn’t in having a single parent, it’s the tolerance of social isolation for the young man. He needs to be expected to socially engage and work on his social skills when there’s problems. Often the single parent feels guilty about the divorce or about working a lot, so he or she tolerates the social isolation. Or, the lone single parent has mental health problems of his or her own, which intensify rather than moderate the young man’s isolation and distorted perceptions.
More youth social activities. In the 1970’s, I was a school teacher and the director of a summer recreation program that was federally funded for low-income youth. Some of those children had divorced parents and the kids really bonded with the staff and parents involved in the program. Of course, those funds ended with the 1980’s government budget-cutting trend that continues today. Where should our priorities be? Yachts or youth?
Get guns out of the cities. In 1979, Brenda Spencer shot and killed two people and injured nine others at the school across the street from her house in San Diego. She used a semi-automatic rifle that her father gave her for Christmas 1978. The reason she gave: “I don’t like Mondays; this livens up the day.” (Wikipedia) The 20-year-old shooter in Connecticut apparently used his mother’s semi-automatic guns to shoot and kill 26 people on December 16th. Research shows that children’s brains are not fully developed until about 25 years of age – especially their pre-frontal cortex which helps them control their impulses. What are kids and unstable young adults doing with such easy access to guns? Some can’t control their violent impulses now, but will be able to in a few years. Imagine if they didn’t have semi-automatic weapons nearby when they were angry. And why do we need guns in the cities anyway? I believe that more adults (and their children) get killed each year at home with their own guns, than intruders get killed breaking into someone else’s home.
Less media drama about these events. We shouldn’t be giving all this power to “shooters.” I believe their names and faces should not be shown in the news. The news media already withholds the names and faces of juvenile offenders and adult rape victims. We shouldn’t keep building this fantasy of power and fame for the next shooter. No 15-minutes of fame for you! Get help instead. In fact, we would all be better off to turn off the TV drama and spend more time with children and other loved ones.
Preventing the next shooting is going to take a serious shift in national priorities. Let’s focus on the “youth deficit.” There’s no cliff that’s more important than that!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.