It is only by the grace of God that we don’t have more kids in the news tripping offline and killing people. The insanity starts in middle school. Their physiology and psychology start changing, and the entire world turns upside down. Transitioning from childhood to adulthood isn’t for the faint of heart; but it is required of everyone, whatever their mettle or character. Last week we saw just how badly someone can fail at it and we witnessed the mayhem caused when such a time bomb is not diffused properly.
An article in Psychology Today titled The Negative Voices In Your Teenager’s Head states plainly some very important facts about this maturation process. It describes (softly, though accurately) the chaotic mess that is the adolescent mind. It’s been decades since I endured the trauma of being a teenager, but memories of the irrational rage, universally unchecked emotions, and feelings of abject powerlessness coupled with excruciating misery remain fresh even now. As my daughters have traversed this minefield there have been some near misses, but we’ve come out relatively whole. Many families aren’t so lucky, as we just saw in Florida.
I had made it through the crazy and was well into my Navy time when the Columbine massacre happened. I remember all the cries of shock and outrage, but mostly I remember my initial reaction. I understood. I had felt the anguish that drives one to violence. I’d felt the pain of always being excluded, picked on, put down. I’d felt the unrelenting hatred towards my personal tormentors (and everything else, really.) Although I had only suffered and never acted, I could conceive of how someone might be pushed that far.
Something made a difference for me and for every other kid who doesn’t finally turn the tables and shoot up his school. For me, it was a very few individual human beings. Mrs. Crockett let me have space. She assigned me alone in the library to do research papers for my American History class rather than confining me to the classroom. Miss Hughes (5 foot tall and nearly as wide) believed in me. Although I’d failed every term of her Algebra 1 class she begged me to just get a 90 on the final so I would pass for the year and could be in her Algebra 2 Honors class the next year. (I disappointed her, but she believed in me right to the end.) Mr. May, who directed the jazz band, shared with me his experience on the Vegas Strip and a love of big band music. These were the guard rails that kept me from plummeting into a chasm.
I had other advantages some kids don’t have today. I was dragged to the church early in life and had embedded in me a sense of right and wrong. Though I raged and seethed and felt a thousand impulses a second, I was always tethered to what C. S. Lewis calls the ‘Law of Human Nature.’ I knew there were “oughts” and “ought nots.” I pounded my fists against them, I screamed and shrieked at them, but they held. The basic concepts of right and wrong withstood my onslaught and I survived (somehow) the soul-consuming drive to break through them.
Not everyone has it as bad, and some have it worse, but the truth is that time in life is dicey. Perhaps it’s the 24-hour news cycle that makes it seem worse now, or maybe social media echoes and amplifies the worst of human nature, making it appear more horrific than ever before; but it doesn’t have to get worse.
The article gives some decent pointers on leading our children through that time. I’d add to them a few other things; moral training from institutions of authority (yes, I mean religion), routine and regimentation. Having set expectations can be landmarks to let one know he is not completely lost, even if it’s something as simple as dinner being served at 6 PM. I’d emphasize getting kids some place quiet (preferably with trees, mountains, or water) as a healing balm and refuge from the maddening world.
One thing I’m certain of in this — government can offer no solutions, save greater freedom to remove our children from the public school system. Although individual teachers can and do make an enormous difference in the lives of individual students, the system as a whole only antagonizes and worsens the craziness our kids experience. The real help comes on a smaller scale: it happens in Sunday School, it happens at the dinner table, it can be found in the park or on a hiking trail. We can’t prevent our kids from going through this chaotic time, but we can lead them through it successfully. We can help them endure the misery and hopefully prevent the avoidable explosions.