I remember in what used to be called junior high school a wonderful group that met for a while once every few weeks. Mr. Otterbein, the school counselor, pulled together a few girls, who were friends, so they were receptive to the idea.
The rules were simple. Be open, be honest, be respectful and what is said does not leave the room. And surprisingly, for young teens, everyone did abide. This group Mr. O, as we fondly called him, started was not about counseling per Se but about peer support. We started out wanting to talk about safe topics, boys we liked, girls we hated, clothes we loved, celebrities we knew wanted to kiss us, etc. It took time to break down the barrier. But eventually the walls came down. When they did, little by little, we began to really see each other differently, more than just a fellow classmate, just another girl our age, but more as a whole person.
The sharing brought out sometimes heart wrenching stories of what was going on in our lives, including loss, disappointment, frustration, despair, anger, and other emotions. Going to class, to sports, boyfriends, and hanging out, these are not the places and kind of things teens normally share. This group and setting allowed us to bring emotions to the forefront. It provided a healthy forum to deal with them, help each other and also have an adult there to guide the conversation in a positive direction, if needed. Most times, it was not needed. We gave each other strength. We found coping skills in our own situation from listening to others. We found blessings in our new found deep abiding friendships based on realities and not falsities.
Today, the news is filled of stories of teens filled with some of the same emotions we brought to our sessions all those years ago. Instead of sitting in a safe zone to discuss them with other teens, young confused teens are walking around with guns shooting folks. Afterwards, everyone is standing around looking shocked and saying they never saw this coming, what is wrong with the teens today. I am not sure it is all that different than before, is it? Or are they just not being given tools to cope? I don’t have the answers because my children are grown. But I do know my kids had sessions with me, so many in fact, they began to hate them probably.
I believe communication is key. Talking and more importantly listening are essentially. If teens are not listened to, they are more inclined to act. Sometimes that is the only way they can be heard. We survived all the drama of middle school by having a great support system that kept us grounded. I did not have such a group in high school and feel it was harder because of it. I wish the kids that say they join gangs because they are bored had a group like I joined instead. Are inner city schools even offered opportunities like that? Is it cool? We were allowed to cut class to attend, how cool is that?
Recently I watched a debate on why the violence is so prevalent with young people today. One reason stated was there is an increase in mental illness. Many young people are walking around with undiagnosed mental illness. That may be true. My only concern here is that mental illness is treated with drugs. Though violence and mental illness are extremely serious, it is scary to think that thousands of teens should be medicated. Is that the answer?
Many believe in what teens are saying that they are acting violent out of boredom. That is rather difficult to swallow. It shows a total lack of consciousness towards life. Plus, who hasn't been bored as a teen? Everyone experienced boredom at that age. How many of us felt compelled to kill someone because of it? Seriously now, I do not believe this is the sole reason a teen (s) go out and kill someone. Most folks, if bored, go out and indulge on food, go shopping, play sports, not grab a gun and go kill.
The one reason I did hear that makes the most sense is rage. Teens, for multiple reasons, have inward hostility building up inside going unchecked, unnoticed. There are telltale signs, in advance, with many of these kids that are just ignored. It can be school grades, Facebook post or other media outlets, friend choices, behavior at home, drug usage, violent interaction, etc… The parents may notice but the last person a teen will listen to are the parents! Parents are so often viewed as the enemy by rebellious teens, even non rebellious teens. No one else seems to pay attention until these kids go over the edge. Then, all the sudden, they are all over the news and everyone is shocked and saying they didn't have a clue. I am with the experts that say, looking back, there usually always are clues.
We, as a society, every one of us, needs to pay attention. It may not be your teen, you may feel it is not your responsibility, as in my kids are grown up, but it is! All of us need to come together. Stray bullets make no distinction. Teens tend to not be good shooters. Any of us could be a target for random violence. Maybe all of us could try giving someone recognition so they know they count. Make eye contact, be friendly. Ask your school systems what they are doing to give teens an outlet, the ones that aren't involved in sports. Not everyone is a sports junkie, not everyone has parents involved in their life. Why should the teen be penalized if his parents both have to work and he/she need some other activity that is productive?
I do believe change can happen. I think the innocence of our youth is still here, as it always was and will always be. I, unlike so many, am not willing to throw today’s teens under the bus and just accept it. I think they are looking for a change and do not know how to ask for it. We are the adults and I refuse to let my grandchildren down. Maybe these grandiose acts of violence we are seeing in the news are acts of desperation and shallow thinking. Their brains are not fully developed and they do not see that long term effects of their actions, and how they are limiting a future that could be promising for themselves.
We need to create better paths for them to follow by providing more avenues of help, pre-violent acts. Our little group at Spinning Hills in Mad River Township gave us a sense of pride in who we were, and what we could one day be. We felt empowered for an exciting future that was limitless! Every teen deserves to feel that way. As a community, we need to work towards that and not sit back and give up.