The inner conflict and confusion that most adolescent males experience is unsettling, and can be profoundly toxic.
Along with the fundamental human wonderings related to personal identity — "Who am I, and what is worth my time and energy?" — is added the immediacy of figuring out how to become a man. Hence, the ultimate validation among guys is: "You are the man!"
Boys wishing to become men look to their families, their peers and society in general for guidance and inspiration. Breakdowns and contradictions in any of these three forces complicate, and can even derail, the teens' personal-social development.
Our most basic calling as humans is to find some pathway to become heroic and feel secure in the knowledge that we are both visible and valued. We long to see ourselves as participating in something of lasting worth.
This search for a personal identity is difficult and painful under the best of circumstances. When any of the three socializing institutions in males' lives break down around a teen male, he aches for some solid ground amid all the conflict and confusion.
Many teen males learn to channel their unpleasant emotions into anger, for anger is not seen as weak in male culture. Anxiety and depression often accompany expressions of anger.
The inner dialogue seeking to convince you that you are helpless, hopeless and powerless must be altered by any means necessary: sports, drugs and alcohol, sex, comedy, music, attempting to be perfect, computer games, driving fast, etc. All these attempts are hollow, for they rarely ever provide a pathway to being truly heroic.
Given an American culture that has been in a stunning transformation over the past 50-60 years, there exists no clear pathway to seeing yourself as important. Where is there anything that is stable, consistent, predictable?
I experienced firsthand in my office the loss of almost any certainty in the lives of the teens I counseled. The impact: Young men no longer need to be mentally ill to commit horrific acts such as school shootings.
Their actions reflect back to us as adults that we have failed to support them in their search for personal meaning. They are the symptom — we are the problem. Here are a some steps we can take:
1) Double the number of school counselors. Offer them ongoing training and supervision. Don't burden them with responsibilities for testing, etc. Presently, most school counselors are not allowed to truly work with students and their families.
Counselors must be student advocates, serving as adults on campus who truly understand the pressures and emotional needs that swirl within the student body. Boys who perceive themselves as isolated and alone, misunderstood and insignificant, invisible to those with whom they spend each day, have a heightened potential to become a danger to both themselves and others.
2) Personalize, don’t continue to mechanize, the educational process. Presently, all too often, students feel like they are treated like objects that are expected to produce desired outcomes for their parents, teachers and the school system in general. Grades, test scores and college admission rates are the measures of their worth as humans.
Unless we do a much better job of balancing the current focus on making a good living with the modeling of the process of making a quality life, more and more boys will see themselves as failures. Aggression and the potential for violence become viable alternatives to boys seeking to experience personal power.
3) Establish quality peer programs at every school. Young people communicate mostly with other young people. Positive peer influence has the potential to significantly influence the atmosphere that exists on every school campus. When students that are representative of the entire spectrum of the student body are trained in specific skills and supervised as they assume a variety of roles, everyone benefits.
No school shooting takes place without other teens knowing that their school being attacked is a real possibility. There will never be enough adults to prevent a school shooting from happening. Only the kids can do this. They have the access to social media, etc. They know the rumors.
Until adults and adult social institutions begin being responsible and consistent, young people will continue to cry out for help. School shooting are on us, not on them. They see the gap between our creeds and deeds. They will struggle mightily, and more will die needlessly, until we grow up.
Tom Erney, PhD, is a retired adolescent and family counselor.