As I was watching the local evening news, I was grieved to see teenagers who shot other teenagers as a prevalent theme. There was a local shooting in Philadelphia at a recreation center where a 15-year-old was shot by someone riding a bike. In fact there have been a series of shootings at Philadelphia recreation centers where children are supposed to be able to go to play, participate in programs and be safe. Even at a local mall a teenager was just arrested for starting a fight in the mall and shooting other individuals there.
Then we hear of cheerleaders who were shot by a 25-year-old male because they opened the wrong car door. A young man went to the wrong door to pick up his siblings and was shot even though he was not threatening anyone. Then I heard about the shooting in Dade, Alabama where 3 young men, two of which were teenagers killed 4 individuals, 3 of which were teenagers and injured 32 more individuals at a sweet-sixteen party. Clearly, we have an epidemic of shootings and many of these shootings involve teenagers as either the shooter or the victims of shootings.
These stories are the result of just one evening’s news broadcast. Even as a professional in the field of youth care I find this kind of news to be shocking and disillusioning. These teenagers are young, some as young as 12 years old, and are using means of destruction that they should never have possession of. It seems we have a society that uses guns to resolve conflict and anger that results in life-ending actions even at a sweet sixteen party. It feels like a return to the days of the wild West where guns were prevalent and people took it within their own hands to settle conflicts in this way.
There are many different proposed strategies around preventing these kinds of shootings. Most of these teenagers who shoot individuals possess illegal guns at an illegal age. Therefore, gun legislation is probably not going to solve this dilemma. There are not enough police to patrol every situation where there are domestic or teenage conflicts. The trending for violence is increasing among teenagers and shootings are the leading cause of teenage deaths. Some would want to link the violence to illegal drugs but that is not the only reasons and is itself such a prominent problem that it will take years to resolve.
It is not that we should not address guns, police protection, violence or drugs. We certainly need to keep working on these important issues. What we need is to build relationships with teenagers and provide mentorship, friendship and help them as they develop into adults. As we at Lakeside work with thousands of teenagers, we see them working through mental duress, anger, violent responses to conflict and drug addiction. What is significant to note is that caring, responsible adults can and do have significant impact in their lives that can help facilitate a less violent approach to conflict resolution or some of the trauma they are reacting to.
Developmentally we know that the consequence center of the teenage brain is still developing during teenage years. We also know that if they are operating out of their brainstem (fight or flight) their impulse control, their decision-making, their reactivity, their sense of future and their functional IQ all are at a very low level of functioning.
Teenage years are the time where adults should be helping teenagers stay safe, establish healthy values and protection while their brains and neurological capacity are developing. If we are going to help teenagers who are at high risk, we need to provide ways for them to be exposed to healthy adults who can help them get through high-threat life circumstances and normal development in a way that protects them and those around them. It is by far the most effective way we can stop the violence. I appreciate so many who are working on this by providing those opportunities. We need to support them and be one of them with those teenagers we encounter in our sphere of influence.