THE BLOG
11/11/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

How Well Do We Know Our Children?

RJW via Getty Images

When tragedies happen, especially the sudden, unprovoked, random violence of a serial killer or a school shooter opening fire without warning, we feel overwhelmed, helpless, disempowered. It's a basic human impulse to try to restore a sense of control, however illusory. In attempting to make it predictable, we seek to identify a pattern, a prototype of the kind of person who would commit such an act.

We expect to find that the shooter was a loner, an outcast, alienated, bullied, marginalized by his peers.

But the recent school shooting outside of Seattle didn't fit that pattern. Jaylen Fryberg, the teenager who allegedly invited three of his closest friends and two of his cousins to lunch and then stood up and shot them all before turning the gun on himself, had none of these traits. He was popular, a football player and newly elected "prince" on the homecoming court. No one knew what rage was boiling under his smooth, friendly surface. It appears that no one really knew him, perhaps not even his parents. Everywhere, other parents are asking what signs they saw, if any. What did they know? And parents are looking inward and asking: Would I know if my child harbored such terrifying anger and violence?

We don't need to cite such an extreme case to realize how little we understand of the mental and psychological world of those around us, even those closest to us. How well do we know our spouses? Well enough to predict when they are having an affair? Apparently, not so often. How well do we know our children? Well enough to understand what is motivating them and how, if they are in trouble, to help them? Maybe not.

Yet, some parents harbor the illusion that they can read their children's needs, emotions and desires. Mothers and babies begin utterly connected to each other. Even after the moment of birth, mother and child share the same rhythms. A nursing mother often wakes in the middle of the night ready to feed her infant before the child herself knows she's hungry. The mother's body tells her it's time and within minutes, the baby cries. The mother's heartbeat has soothed the child in her womb and now, pressed against her, drinking from her body, she is soothed again. So the mother can perhaps be forgiven if she thinks she knows this child, thinks as the child grows that she understands best what the child wants and needs, even into that child's adolescence and adulthood. We can also perhaps understand if she ignores or overlooks some signs of distress, because she doesn't want to see them. Perhaps she finds a benign interpretation for an antisocial act or an excuse for a failure to live up to her expectations because she is too invested in her child's success as a reflection of her own.

Parental scrutiny is a dilemma. How much supervision is too much? How much is not enough? How much should you pry into your child's emails, Facebook account, diary? The problem is not only that a parent doesn't really know as much as she believes she does, but that, especially in adolescence, the parent shouldn't know everything. Both parent and child have to begin to let each other go. The difficulty is that letting go can be dangerous. Most of the time, the danger is relatively small: a child makes a mistake, he cheats on a test, he gets caught and gets in trouble. Another stays out too late, she tries drugs, she drinks too much; he picks the wrong love object, gets hurt or hurts someone else and presumably they all learn and grow from their experiences. But sometimes, their problems are deeper, their actions are more serious and the consequences more grave. The parent must do the seemingly impossible: Hold on and let go at the same time, supervise but quietly, even surreptitiously, and be ever-watchful for signs of danger or distress without communicating lack of faith in the child's abilities to manage on his own. The parent must seek outside help when it seems necessary, talk to councilors, teachers and social workers. It seems an almost impossible task.

And yet, the majority of families survive their children's adolescence without repercussions. It's easy to forget how dangerous the world can be for the unformed, emotional teenager. When one falls through the cracks, it can be a terrifying reminder. This is why we have been so fascinated by the Amanda Knox case. Once again, she doesn't fit the mold. She has been accused of taking part in a grisly murder and everything we've been told about her argues against that accusation. She is from a seemingly average American family, a high school soccer player, a pretty, even beautiful, girl with an innocent American face and limited experience of life. She went to Perugia, like many college kids, on a junior year abroad program. The Italian prosecutors, without a convincing motive for the crime, recognized that they needed an alternative description of the defendant. They built another pattern, one that fits better with a murderer. They portray her as a cold, vindictive, sexually promiscuous drug user. But neither description tells us if she is innocent or guilty of this crime.

It is obvious that intervention is essential for troubled children and that the sooner they get help the better. But forming a stereotype of the kind of person who needs help and offering psychological services to that student is not enough. It might be more useful to make psychological assessment and frequent counseling a required part of a high school education for all students. The high school years are still formative. As Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health and others have shown, the brain continues to grow and develop throughout adolescence. Dr. Elizabeth Sowell at UCLA found that the brain's frontal lobes show the greatest change in young people between about 10 or 12 and their early twenties. By paying as much attention to emotional development as we do to intellectual growth, parents and educators might be able to ease the difficult passage to adulthood as well as stop some tragedies before they begin.

Nina Darnton, who has a Masters degree in Psychology, has worked as a psychologist and a journalist. Her novel, "The Perfect Mother" will be published with Penguin Books on November 25th.