The senseless killings in Newtown, Conn. have come to mean many things to many different people. What they mean to Parenting after Newtown is that now more than ever children need guidance. They need help. Debi Lynes, a licensed professional counselor, helps get you started.
The questions pile up to dizzying, overwhelming heights. Who does this? Why are so many of these shootings happening in our schools? Why are many of these murderers adolescents and young adults? What is happening to our teens? Maybe he watched too many video games? Why did no one notice? Why does something like this have to happen before we realize we have a public health crisis?
And no matter how many questions as we ask, or how many of society’s ills we blame, we get no closer to an answer. Perhaps there is no one answer. But rather than react to these tragedies, doesn’t it make more sense to become educated about the psychological development of our children? The evidence and research is there, documented in the literature, to help people become more proactive and prevent future incidents.
Parenting does not come with a rule book and each generation of teens and young adults have their own culture, complete with previously unknown challenges, pressures, and stressors. Parents of previous generations may have had to worry about drugs and violence, but never the vagaries of Facebook or the alarming lack of empathy that seems to plague this generation of children. So before you say, “This is the way I was raised and this psychology stuff is voodoo and malarkey,” it may not hurt to look at some cold, hard facts.
Our brains begin to develop before birth and the average brain matures between the ages of 23 and 25. The skills that are taught, and the coping mechanisms that are developed during this time, have lifelong consequences not only to the individual, but to society as a whole.
We train young America about the real world through programs espousing the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, drinking and driving, and the dangers of sex. But rarely do we educate our adolescents about mental health. Rarely are there programs that address the stigma of brain disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, to name a few. Rarely are there assemblies or workshops or open forums where teens can dialogue about bullying, about how to manage emotions or how to handle conflict at home or with peers.
Here are a few facts that may surprise many adults:
1. Pediatricians or family doctors rarely if ever speak to teens about guns and firearms during a routine screening, and yet 60 percent of teens have been exposed to, or know of a peer, who had access to a gun.
2. Seventy percent of respondents ages 14-25 report feeling tired all of the time and exhibit symptoms of sleep deprivation such as anxiety, irritability, and depression.
3. Poor mental health may lead to poor school performance, strained family relationships, substance abuse, and risky behaviors.
4. Fifty-five percent of respondents ages 13-25 describe stress reduction and escape as the reason they use controlled substances.
5. Over 50 percent of teens report being bullied repeatedly, and 85 percent of those teens never report that to parents, school, or authorities.
6. Less than 30 percent of teens showing signs of depression or anxiety receive treatment (as a result of teens not sharing or parents fearing stigma).
7. In the past 6 months, more than one in four teens self-report contemplating suicide to escape the pain and pressure of their day-to-day lives.
The list goes on and on. But enough of what we are not doing.
What can we do as individuals, families, and a community? What can we do to encourage, model and shape positive mental health in our teens and young adults? What can we do to prevent future heinous tragedies like the killings in Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech?
As parents, we can develop skills of our own that will help us to really know and understand our kids. Development of these skills will help us ask the tough questions and be prepared to hear answers we may not want to hear.
STEP ONE: Understand
Begin by understanding that the teen years are wracked with change.
1. Adolescents have a great emotional investment in their peers, more than their parents at this time.
2. Adolescents are experiencing massive physical, mental, and emotional changes.
3. Adolescents are “trying on” different identities at this age as they explore who they are and what their purpose is.
4. Adolescents want increased autonomy and privacy, and will test all boundaries as part of normal development.
STEP TWO: Listen
Next, be willing to actively listen to what they are sharing (practice not looking shocked, and do not interrupt no matter how much you will want to). Recognize that your child wants you to understand their point of view or at least be willing to listen non-judgmentally. Remember, you do not have to agree with what your child believes or thinks. The goal is to try to understand, so that they in turn will begin to listen to suggestions for finding a solution.
STEP THREE: Pay attention
Keep your antennas up for a teen showing signs of wanting to share or talk. Make yourself available and reassure them that they can always come to you. Do not assume anything about your child, their experiences outside the home, or their understanding of right and wrong.
Finally, know that all kids are different and there is no gold standard or workbook for raising a healthy adolescent and young adult. What we do know is that the more we normalize mental health education, the more we teach our kids about their brain development, the realities of mental health and what to do when they are suffering, the more we can open the doors for teens to express themselves, get the healthcare they need and perhaps even prevent future tragedies. M
Dr Debi Lynes is a licensed professional counselor with 10 years experience . She focuses on families and adolescents and is a resource and placement specialist for adolescents and young adults.
NAMI speaks out
In response to the tragedy in Newtown, the Board of Directors for The National Alliance of Mental Illness of Beaufort County issued the following:
Other than speculation, there’s no real information about a diagnosis, whether Adam Lanza was known to the mental health system, whether he or his family tried to get help or any other possibilities.
We do know that mental illness exists in every state, every city and every neighborhood of the U.S. One in four adults — nearly 60 million Americans — experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives with serious mental illness, and one in 10 children lives with a serious mental or emotional disorder.
Yet fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosed mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.
We know that it is generally very difficult for people to access early intervention and early treatment services for many reasons:
• There is a general lack of knowledge in the community about mental illness and how to get mental health care.
• The pervasive stigma, or rather social stereotypes, that prevail towards mental illness serve as a deterrent for people to seek help when they need it.
• Families sometimes don’t know to get help for loved ones manifesting symptoms of possible mental illness, or where to go.
• When individuals or families seek help and services, these services are frequently not available. This situation has grown worse in recent years with budget cuts, narrowing of eligibility criteria for services, limits on what services are available, etc.
We do know the U.S. Surgeon General determined over a decade ago that “the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.” When violence does occur, it is usually because something has gone terribly wrong in the mental health care system. Either something has fallen short or something hasn’t happened at all.
The President in his recent remarks pledged that he’ll use “whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
NAMI represents millions of Americans affected by mental illness. We represent parents. We represent families. We get it. We’ve been there. We help other families and individuals. We work with law enforcement, teachers and mental health professionals.
We’re ready to work with the President and whoever else is ready. The need has existed for a long time — the test is whether the country is ready to really take it seriously.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness Beaufort County is a non-profit orgnaization dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illness and their families through programs of education, support, and advocacy and the promotion of recovery and dignity. 843-681-2200