Are we listening to troubled male teens?

Heartbreaking, the only way to describe Friday's deaths at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School. At a subsequent parent meeting at the Science and Technology Magnet School, people expressed fear, hurt, anger, bewilderment, confusion, sadness, every emotion one can imagine. There will be great debate about why this happened, whether it could have been prevented and what can be done next. There will be many "if only" statements ranging from gun control to school security to picking up on early signs. I would like to talk about some of the things we all can do.

We need to recognize and acknowledge several patterns that have been emerging since Columbine, the similar school tragedy in Colorado. These events have taken place around the United States; however none of them have occurred in urban areas. All of the people doing the shooting have been males. The in-depth studies of those involved often revealed histories of depression, anger or trauma. Virtually all of the young men who have done the shooting were showing signs of anger or depression long before they walked into schools or other public settings and started shooting. We can all be alert to the signs that a person is troubled.

We can all listen to and talk with children. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends the following in talking with young people about Newtown:

• Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime.

• Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.

• Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don't interrupt - allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.

• Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.

• Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.

The APA also recommends limiting children's exposure to the news.

The holidays are very difficult times of year for anyone who has gone through traumas such as divorce, or a family death. Continuous failure in school, overwhelming pressure to get high grades or get into the "right" college can also be very traumatic. These traumas often leave a young person very angry and lead them to lash out by getting into fights in school. Strange as it seems, when young people fight or act out in a very public setting like school, they are often asking for help, wanting somebody to notice them or stop it. We also need to be aware of those turning inward, or withdrawing into depression.

We can all watch for changes in behavior. Has the person's pattern of dress changed? Have their eating habits changed? Were they usually on time and started showing up late or not at all? Were they getting good grades in school and suddenly started getting low grades? Have they stopped talking to friends? Have they started "running" with new friends who adults consider a bad influence? Were they active and then started spending all day playing video games, watching TV? Have they started disappearing without letting you know where they are? Have they suddenly created a secret space to which you are not allowed access? Were they talkative and suddenly have turned quiet? Are you seeing signs of drug or alcohol involvement? All of these can be precursors to or symptoms of depression, anger and violence.

We also need to consider changing our expectations of boys and men. For a long time, boys and men have been told "suck it up" or "get over" hurt, trauma, anger, depression and disappointment without talking about them. This is especially true of "real men" and athletes. This is in dramatic contrast to girls and women who are often encouraged and expected to talk and express their feelings.

We adults need to encourage young men and women to talk. We need to listen to them. We need to say hello to them, we need to ask how they are doing. We need to listen without imposing our own opinions. This does not mean that adults can't let young people know their limits, what behavior they find acceptable or unacceptable. It means that young people need to know that they as people, their thoughts, opinions and feelings are valued. It means that we have to take the time to show them that they are important.

I think you'd be surprised at how much we can learn when we ask and listen.

Nicholas Fischer is the superintendent of New London Public Schools.


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