© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
In the wake of yet another school shooting, I, like many others, am wondering why. What drives a young person (or anyone else) to shoot their friends and relatives, apparently for no reason anyone can discern. I say that understanding that there is never a “good” reason to kill someone, but according to the news reports of the Marysville, WA shooting, there did not appear to be any reason. It must be something, though.
Our websites deal with resolving conflicts and managing difficult people and our communications with them. Something was obviously amiss with this boy, and as I was reading about him I realized that I tend to think of High-Conflict People (HCPs) as being adults. To be diagnosed with a personality disorder, most of the criteria indicate a long-standing pattern of specific adverse behaviors is required. So where to kids fit into this? Are they HCPs in the making? Maybe. It has to start somewhere.
By all accounts, the shooter was a smart, popular kid: a football player with many friends and strong ties to the community and the Native American Tribe of which he was a member. Yet something induced him to get a gun, invite his friends to lunch in the cafeteria, text his parents ahead of the act, then shoot his classmates and himself. That smacks of calculation and intelligent planning, but in the world of HCPs intelligence and planning has little to do with it. Generally speaking they are driven to spontaneous action by what we call “emotional reasoning” — it feels bad so it therefore is bad and defending themselves from that feeling of threat results in defensive action of some sort.
So if we go with the thought that this boy might have been an up-and-coming HCP, what set him down that path and what set him off? The only hint I have seen so far is that there was some trouble in a relationship and/or a breakup with a girl. While that’s never easy at any age, most people don’t shoot anyone over it, so again, what happened with this kid’s reasoning? Did we miss the warning signs? Did he exhibit patterns of abnormal behavior?
According to Bill Eddy, founder of the High-Conflict Institute, HCPs “may be 10-20% of our society, and of most modern industrial societies. However, most don’t kill anyone. Predicting violence is still not possible, but certain ways of ‘high-conflict’ thinking should raise concern. These ways of thinking often attract people to positions of high authority and respect” (think: homecoming prince, popular football jock) “… yet their personalities cannot manage the ordinary bumps and rejections along the way.”
Among adults who may be HCP’s, or have strong HCP traits, certain characteristics generally apply:
They feel entitled and that they deserve more than others. This could be as simple as parking where they shouldn’t or as grand as feeling deserving of fame with no real basis for it.
They have an unrealistic sense of self, like they are better than other people. They have trouble linking their actions to any consequence.
They think in terms of black and white and all-or-nothing and everyday occurrences may feel like a huge win or loss. Overreacting is the norm.
Emotions are hard to manage, or not managed at all, and when they are upset (which happens a lot) it trumps logical thinking and normal problem solving ability.
They can’t usually self-reflect. They don’t see anything wrong with themselves, their thoughts or behaviors. Someone else is always to blame and they have no empathy for people whom they believe cause their problems.
They can’t handle criticism or anything that remotely feels like it. If you try to point out a bad behavior or erroneous logic they will leap to a defense. Sometimes, violently.
The above is generally accepted to apply to adult HCPs who have a history of these kinds of behaviors – often the result of a lifetime of bad experiences (although genetics might sometimes play a part). I don’t know what kind of life this boy had; if he was over-indulged and always got his way, or if he was abused, or something in between that we’d consider “normal,” but most 14-year-olds haven’t been around long enough to acquire a ton of “life experiences” and most of them know that violence won’t solve anything. Having said that, and still assuming he could have been a youthful HCP, would he fit the profile from what little we know? Would being a football player and homecoming honoree indicate self-entitlement and a sense of grandeur? Would a spat with a girlfriend result in the black-and-white decision that killing and dying is an acceptable solution? There was most certainly a loss of emotional control and any ability to critically think through whatever was going on in his life that upset him so.
Maybe I’m on the wrong track entirely, and the kid was simply immune to the stark reality of his choices. Perhaps he was not suffering delusions of being superior and was following the lead of, or was heavily influenced by, other school shooters. It’s very likely he’d seen it in the news and social media again, again and again. Not to mention violent and lauded television heroes, suspect cartoon characters and a host of other, let’s say, less than savory internet sites. I do know that, like the catching someone’s giggles, emotions and thoughts can be contagious and he probably had no shortage of violent role models in the media as a whole. Maybe he watched as the rest of us eagerly lapped it up or ignored it as nothing of consequence, and got his ideas from us as a society. It may not be the root cause of his problems, but I’d bet money that it was part of it.
This school is not so far from where I live, so it literally hits close to home. I wish I had the answer, but I don’t.I think the Snohomish County Sheriff said it best when he said we may never know “the why.” For my part, then, I’ll continue to ask our readers to treat difficult people with Empathy, Attention and Respect, and to learn new and counter-intuitive methods of resolving conflict in non-violent and effective ways. It won’t solve the problem, but I hope it’s a small part of it.
Connecting with Empathy Attention and Respect
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.