Editor’s Note: This story is being republished in light of the recent tragic mass shooting at UCSB. If the information herein can help even one person, we are beyond grateful.
As someone who writes about current events for a living, the last few weeks have been insanely difficult. The Sandy Hook tragedy  has left me, along with the rest of the country, immensely shaken. On top of that, recently there has been a San Antonio movie theater shooting , 50 shots fired at a California mall  and down the road from my house, the Clackamas Town Center shootings . Clackamas Mall, by the way, is where I usually take my son to the movies, so it’s all feeling really close to home and hard to deal with. Not only has scanning the news been a nightmare, but I’ve never felt less motivated to write about an issue in my life, and this is coming from a writer who has an opinion about everything.
But what could I possibly say about recent events? I’ve just been quietly thinking things over this last week. I’ve also been reading what other people have to say about all of this, which is what made me decide to write this post — because my gut reaction is that when we focus on gun control, mental health issues and the parents of the shooters, we may be missing the mark. The main thought that keeps popping into my head is that we need to focus on building stronger community ties  and support systems for kids who need it.
Herein I outline what I believe are crucial steps that need to be taken in order to prevent violence by helping at-risk kids. I have personally experienced both sides of the fence, as the child who needed help, and the mentor who has attempted to make a difference in the life of a struggling child. I hope my story encourages us all to build a stronger community for our children to prosper — and I will share ways you can start making a difference immediately.
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Why is everyone so violent?
First of all, though it doesn’t undermine recent events, it’s wise to remember that not everyone is violent . It seems like random shootings and other acts of violence are becoming more frequent, but experts say they’re not . This may help you put things in perspective, especially if you’re finding it difficult to cope. Even when bad things happen, you should realize that this does not mean placing your own kids under lock and key . The world is still a fairly safe place and many people are not bad. As to dealing with the question of why an individual might commit such a terrible act of violence, it’s so hard to say. There has been a lot of speculation in the media about what may have caused these recent shootings, with people blaming everything from video games  to a lack of men  in schools, but most theories are focused on three key issues: gun control, mental health care access and the parents of the shooters.
Gun control laws: plenty of people are claiming that better gun control will equal less violence. In fact, an individual posted a petition regarding gun control laws  at WhiteHouse.gov, on Friday soon after the shooting at Sandy Hook, and that petition is now the most popular petition  the White House has ever received, with 195,365 signatures and counting. I get why people would want better gun control laws. However, in my experience, people who truly aim to harm others will find a way to harm them, guns or not.
Mental health care access: Many not championing gun control have started a heated mental health care system debate , claiming that a lack of access to care leads to crime . I understand that it can be difficult to access health care, yet after spending time in mental health clinicals in my college RN courses and working as a social worker for years, I also know that it’s not impossible to access support. On top of this, many are blaming specific conditions, especially Asperger’s for the recent events, which frankly, is unsettling, because Asperger’s is not a disorder that’s scientifically linked to crime .
Blame the parents: Other people are simply blaming the parents of the shooters. I’ve seen countless comments akin to, “If only their parents had raised them right…” I disagree with this line of thinking. I think that anyone who blames the parents alone for kids who later participate in violent acts haven’t considered how much community interactions can make a difference, in spite of parents who may or may not being doing a great job.
What I think: I have no idea why a specific individual would shoot children in a school or innocent people in a mall, but I will say this, on one hand, there are some bad seeds in our world – for example, people who harm others because they have a major imbalance that causes them to do so. However, the logical and personal side of my brain says most people aren’t born bad. Most people are probably born with a clean slate and based on their interactions with others, have the capacity to become humans who practice good or bad behaviors.
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You can’t just blame the parents
As I noted above, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments aimed at the parents of shooters over the past couple of weeks. However, when someone becomes violent or takes out their frustrations on society, it’s not as simple as just blaming the parents – at some point we need to take responsibility as a community for how kids turn out. When kids have bad parents they also tend to get shunned at school and by the community, and that’s not just the parents fault. Something I’ve mentioned in passing as a writer, but haven’t really ever gotten into was my own household as a kid. I tend to say things like, “I grew up in a questionable home,” mainly because “Questionable” sounds a whole lot nicer at a green family site than, “Violent” or “Abusive.” The truth though, without getting into too much detail, is that my home as a kid was cold, violent and not a place for kids. My two siblings and I being raised in such a household, acted out more than other kids during our early years. However, we didn’t turn into violent adults and we haven’t taken out our past issues on random innocent people. Why not? In spite of the turmoil at home, we had some random adults in our lives, outside of our home, who treated us as if we were worth something.
For me it was a woman who was like a grandma to me. My grandma, who was actually the mother of one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends, took me into her home when my mom kicked me out of my house. For my sister, it was her friend’s family who took her in when my mom kicked her out and treated her like part of the family. For my brother, who was kicked out when he was about 12 or 13 years old, it was the sister of one of my mom’s boyfriends, who actually took my mom to court, fought my mom for custody and eventually ended up adopting my brother, spending all of her own money to do so. My siblings and I didn’t have parents or any blood relatives who cared for us when we were young, but we did have the people above, and they made all the difference. None of the above people owed us anything. Yet they gave and gave and gave, thus changing our lives for the better.
Would my siblings and I have been okay had no one helped us out? Maybe. Three kids from a questionable home have some significant odds stacked against them. On top of that, every time I hear about violence in the community, I remember how it felt to be a kid who was mad at the entire world – and believe me, I was very angry with everyone around me, so I feel like our upbringing could have been a recipe for disaster. Instead, for whatever reason, my siblings and I were lucky that several adults came forward to put our best interests first.
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What makes kids resilient and helps them grow into caring adults?
The fact that some people turn out okay in spite of their past while others don’t is an actual phenomenon called, “Resilient youth .” Most people I know seem to think that if you come from a bad home there’s a better than average chance you’ll develop into an anti-social and/or reckless adult, causing harm to yourself or others. Research backs this up as partially true. However, research also says that even severely at-risk youth can develop into confident, competent and caring adults if they have some protective factors in place that help them form resiliency . Resiliency depends on one or all of the following factors:
- Protective factors in schools.
- Protective factors in families.
- Protective factors in communities.
My brother and I didn’t have protective factors at home, and due to us acting out so much, schools wrote us off as well. Most of our teachers considered us rule breakers at best and lost causes at worst. My sister fared better in school (she was a rule follower, in spite of our home-life) so she got some school supports, but also lacked the protective home factors. What we all had, luckily, were some major protective factors from random members of the community. Research on resilient youth backs this up as incredibly significant, noting that kids who have at least one caring adult in their world are far less likely to turn into adults who harm others.
“With the above in mind, I believe that it’s extremely important that we focus on kids in our communities. It will take a lot of people to change gun laws and the mental health care system. However, it can take a little as one person to make a difference for a child going through a difficult time. You have the ability to be that one adult who ensures that a child grows up to be decent instead of violent. You have the means today to help create a more supportive community.”
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How to get involved with kids (or even one kid) in your community
It really only takes one or two adults to change a child’s life. Below are some excellent ideas about ways you can not only cope with recent events, but help to build stronger communities and healthier youth.
Volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters : I know how lucky I was to have a couple of decent adults in my world when I was young. It would be impossible to repay those adults who helped me and my siblings (not enough money in the world). But what I have been able to do is pay that kindness forward by volunteering with some mentoring programs. My favorite program is Big Brothers Big Sisters. Not only is this a super fun program to be involved with, but Big Brothers Big Sisters notes, “81% of former Littles surveyed agree their Big gave them hope & changed their perspective of what they thought possible.” Before you say, “I don’t have the time,” consider that many kids never get a mentor as there are not nearly enough adult volunteers for mentoring programs. My first Big Sisters trainer noted that that girls can be hard to place with a mentor, but little boys are even harder, with some waiting as long as 7 years for a Big Brother mentor. Considering males commit more crimes , this is a significant issue.
Volunteer with another at-risk youth mentoring program : You won’t believe how many of these programs exist and one of them is perfect for you. There are mentoring programs for adults of all ages and both genders. If you need more encouragement to become a mentor, think about Victoria Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT who saved so many students. Soto was a Big Sister mentor . Can you think of a better way to honor Soto’s memory than to get involved with an excellent volunteer program ?
Learn how to recognize different types of child maltreatment : Then when you see maltreatment of a child, report it correctly . I’d add that reporting child maltreatment is far from enough. As a community, it would be better to get to the source of the problem — helping to build stronger, smarter, less stressed families. Still, it’s better to do something than nothing when you see a child being abused, as stopping abuse may help stop later violence.
Support parents and families who seem to be floundering: Parents who are okay are more likely to result in kids who are okay. There are many parent support programs  available, but you can also simply offer help and support to parents such as hanging out with them, offering suggestions and so forth. Sometimes something as simple as helping to relieve a parent’s stress level can make all the difference. If you are a parent, read how to manage parenting better , with less stress.
Volunteer with a local school : Schools have more kids than they can manage, and many kids with problems will get tossed aside. Volunteering with a school lowers the kid to adult ratio, allowing fewer kid problems to slip through the cracks.
Volunteer with homeless teens: Homeless teens are youth who likely didn’t get support as a child, but there’s still amazing potential within these kids. When I worked with homeless teens I met kids facing odds you’d never believe possible, but because some of them received support of people or programs, these kids grew up into kind, caring and productive young adults. If you’re in Portland, Oregon, like me, I highly suggest you check out Yellow Brick Road , but you can look in the yellow pages for homeless youth programs in your own community. Most programs need volunteers and donations all the time.
Extend your extended family: Kids were never meant to be raised by one or two individuals alone. There’s something to the whole, “It takes a village to raise a child” theory. Be more village-like. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Be a buddy to someone else’s kids.
Connect with other humans: Quit staring at your phone. Instead, look at and acknowledge people in your home, neighborhood and community. I’m guessing it’s easier to commit random crimes when everyone is indeed random, faceless, voiceless and not connected. Our world today doesn’t focus on people but texts on machines, and that’s really too bad because when you connect with humans you feel more human. I turned off my texts via my phone company, which forces me to call or see people instead of texting, and it has been great. Try calling, not texting your friends and family or better yet, go see them if that’s an option.
Start a local parent support group .
Help build safer neighborhoods : Start a neighborhood watch, make sure there are safe places for kids to play outside and support indoor kid community centers as well. Hold an annual block party or an annual 4th of July picnic. These issues may seem outside the bounds of helping one kid, but in reality, kids who have safe places to go are more likely to run into a helpful adult than kids stuck inside.
Most of all…. believe in one kid and make sure they know it: Really remind yourself that kids from even the most extremely horrid homes have the potential to be amazing. Even if they act out. Even if they suck at school and get bad grades. Even if they’re mean or rude or appear to be floundering. There’s no such thing as a lost cause when it comes to a child. It doesn’t matter if you meet that kid though a mentoring program, if they live next door, if they’re a friend of your own child or so on. What you say to a kid, how you act towards them and if you really believe in them can make all the difference.
Not one of the adults who helped my siblings and me were involved in any youth program. These were random adults who just somehow managed to not only believe in us, but took us in, cared for us and made our lives better for absolutely zero gain. There’s random (and not so random) violence in the world and it is beyond tragic, but I also know is that there is random kindness, random caring and random support in the world for some who need it. We all have the potential to be part of the solution. How are you handling current events? Let us know in the comments.
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