Ever since the Columbine tragedy, there has been some mythology about the behavior of teen boys. And, this mythology has not been helped at all by the fact that the killer at the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy was also a male not too far removed in age from his teenage years. He was 20 years old. Yesterday, I came across an article in the New York Times about a 17-year-old male in Alabama who was plotting to set off dozens of bombs and grenades in an attack at his high school. Fortunately, the authorities were able to avert this potential tragedy. I do expect, however, that we will have a number of stories surfacing in the news during the next several weeks about potential copycat crimes. I'm keeping a file of news stories and plan to share them with you over time.
Let me tell you what sort of mythology I am talking about and how it ties into our thinking about teen boys. There is this sort of thinking that in some instances, these boys who engage in horribly violent crimes have simply "snapped" and were just fine prior to this one-time incident of snapping. As a clinical psychologist who has worked in inpatient and outpatient settings for over 25 years, I feel that it is my responsibility to set the record straight. Teen boys and other individuals who commit violent crimes do not simply snap. Rubber bands snap. People do not.
I have spoken with a number of teenage boys and their anxious parents who have been asking me about this "snapping phenomenon." They are worried. And, who can blame them given what they hear? Yes, the majority of teen killers are male. They may or may not have been dealing with mental illness but I will tell you what they were dealing with: They were dealing with longstanding and festering feelings that coupled with access to weapons led to violence. And, there were no rubber bands involved.
I would like parents everywhere to talk to their teen sons -- and daughters, for that matter -- and reassure them that they are unlikely to snap. They may need to be reassured that negative feelings like anger, jealousy or even the desire to retaliate do not lead one to commit a mass murder. Let them know that they need to talk about these feelings and that all feelings don't require an accompanying behavior. I want our teenagers to relax a bit. They already have enough on their plate.
Can you remember the person who you were told had snapped? When I was growing up, there was a woman who would walk up and down the streets screaming about bizarre things that were happening to her. Being the budding psychologist that I was ,I inquired about why this woman was acting this way. My peers told me that she snapped when her husband left her. I can't tell you how many years I worried about people snapping.
Finally, it's tragic that violent killers don't get help before things tragically spiral out of control. Please remember though to quote me when I tell you that turtles and rubber bands snap, not teenage boys.