A Deeper Look at Motivation
Every time there’s a school shooting, I think about what happened 17 years ago when two teenage sons of friends killed two Dartmouth professors. It’s why I got (a) master’s in adolescent psychology and mental health counseling. How could this happen? I wanted to understand and I wanted to help, but mostly, I wanted not to be afraid of what we’re capable of.
Here are some thoughts about why this keeps happening:
Adolescence: The child reaction to suffering is to hurt others because they (the child) are hurting. Adolescents are still children in that their reasoning brains are still forming. When a child is hurting, hurting others makes sense. Kids who don’t have the emotional tools or the support to deal with the magnitude of feeling going on inside will more likely hurt others or themselves. Identity: The work of adolescence is to begin to get a handle on who you are and who you want to be. Identity is also protection from the vast unknown pressing down on kids. Being cool or tough is how you protect yourself from vulnerability. Eat or be eaten. This is who I am. Don’t mess with me. Include me because I’m like you. Exclude me because I’m nothing like you. Anger is an identity. School failure is an identity as much as school success.
Guns: Kids need the protection of identity. For Nikolas Cruz, it was guns. Owning guns, talking about guns, gave him an identity. It also gave him an external focus to direct his suffering. He is the guy who wants to be a school shooter. If nothing else, he gets a reaction. A reaction means he’s visible. But the real goal is to redirect his pain to something or someone outside himself.
Identity: Without the temporary shield of a quickly morphing identity, kids wouldn’t survive the crisis of adolescence. Experimenting with identity is how they figure out who they might be and who they aren’t. Later, they say, “I can’t believe I did that,” but in the moment, they believed it’s exactly who they are.
Guns: Kids experiment with clothes, language, relationships, escapism and now with guns. Adults put guns into kids’ hands. What’s dangerous is kids getting their hands on guns. It’s not that they’re not in their right mind, it’s that they don’t know their mind yet.
Adolescence: Most kids move through adolescence safely, but some fall through the cracks. Knowing who these kids are is tricky because so many kids are practiced actors being who adults want them to be.
Suffering is motivation: Nikolas Cruz’s adoptive mother died suddenly a few months ago. His adoptive father died when he was five. These are real and profound risk factors that hint at motivation.
Access: His friend’s parents let him bring his gun to their home, when he moved in after his mother died. It’s easy to judge these parents, but they did a good thing. They tried to help a kid in trouble. The gun question is not a clear one in this country. They didn’t know what he was thinking.
Mental illness: It’s too easy to say this kid is mentally ill or evil. It’s an easy out. He is lost and hurting, and he owned guns. Mental illness should not be vilified. Is he crazy, evil or depressed? Is he lost, sad, angry, confused, depressed, and did he own guns? Yes. Stupid us.
Let’s take responsibility. Who lost this kid? We did. This country. The adults who are responsible for our kids. We lost him at home, in school, in our communities, at the gun shop, in our laws protecting gun owners.
We lost him because we don’t know how to protect and help those who struggle.
We lost him because of our hyper-focus on success being the only normal that is acceptable. We don’t know how to handle the shadowy parts of who we are and ignore them until they are front page news. We don’t talk about it because we don’t know how to talk about it at home or in schools.
We lost him because we think the gun lobby is too powerful.
Social-emotional education is how we meet the needs of our kids. We are emotional beings who hurt and hurt others. We’ve got to talk about this. We have to learn how to express ourselves safely, constructively. We have to listen.
Mental Health: We talk about red-flagging behavior. Sure. That’s important. But the only way to help someone is to stay connected to that person. Be firm and loving parents and teachers. Start today. Not when the crisis happens. Our kids’ mental health begins with parent leadership.
Schools – Teachers need help. Schools must go beyond preparing students for college. Schools should be like homes. Safe communities where kids are free to experiment, play and learn and express themselves. Teachers need the protection of personally knowing every one of their students alongside a robust and creative counseling program.
Kids like Nikolas Cruz need more love, attention, compassion, boundaries, more relationship success, more therapy, more inclusion and connection, more unconditional love.
They need more adult leadership.
What they don’t need is guns.