We’re all trying to better understand why violence occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. We also want to know what we as adults can do to reduce the number of violent acts that occur in our country. What do our youth need that they’re not getting? What is at the very root of acting out in violent behavior? What connection is there between mental health and the Christian faith?
These are extremely important issues, so I want to address them. However, having only a general knowledge and appreciation of mental health issues, I’ve decided to turn to an expert in the field to bring some considerations to you.
Chapman Clark is a Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture in the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. A few months ago, Chapman spoke at my home church, Transformation Church in Indian Land, S.C., on the topic of parenting and the needs of young people.
Having an appreciation of what he had to say to us during his teaching at church accompanied with his insight into the world of young adults, I invited Chap to participate in a question and answer interview to discuss this topic.
What follows is a summary of Clark’s responses to my questions. I hope you find his comments helpful.
Q. As part of your research for your latest book, Hurt 2.0, you came to some very important findings about the profile of today’s teenagers. Could you share some of those with us please?
A. Young teens feel more alone than ever before. Adults are typically not invested in the lives of our youth without having an adult-driven agenda. There’s a lack of adult involvement in lives of youth so that they are able to explore who they are, with their parent’s help. So, our kids have had to grow up more and more on their own than ever before. We adults are not investing, in depth, with our kids. Yes, we’re enrolling them in soccer, and boy scouts and school activities, and in all sorts of what we might call social capital activities… but we are not doing such a good job at building deep relationships with them through meaningful time spent with them and in meaningful conversations. What we are giving them is ‘stuff,’ and this creates a greater sense of isolation and separation from adults. Teens can’t move into adulthood, in a healthy way, without adults coming into their lives and surrounding them. Because this is happening less and less, their adolescence is lasting longer.
Also, many adults and parents are still trying to attend to their own wounds caused by a deficit of their own adolescent experiences, by involvement in so many ‘activities.’ Because they are also self-absorbed, they are not really able to attend to the needs of their children. Unless we are healthy as adults, we have very little to offer them, ourselves. So, one message to adults is to do what you need to do to become whole so that you can more effectively attend to the real needs of your children.
Kids are more stressed than any generation in history. We have a generation of kids, who are about 34 and under, that have a deep sense that unless they perform to someone else’s agenda that they really don’t have much to offer.
Teens and kids feel unsafe. So, what they long for is a safe place, adults that are better at listening than talking, and some older folks who are willing to invest in them.
Q. From your perspective, what are the most basic psychological, emotional or spiritual needs of a young person?
A. The hierarchy of needs as identified by Maslow may not be complete. One of the biggest psychological needs that kids have is a sense that there are some adult protectors around them. They need to feel and be safe. Kids need to know that the people in charge of their safety are going to be trustworthy and that they are going to make life easier, not harder, for them. Kids also need adults, other than their parents, in their life who are almost parental-like in their relationships with them. These other adults can help kids interpret the complexities of the world that, on their own, they can’t understand. These adults ought not to be talking “at” them, but engaging ‘with’ them, so that they can explore how to grow up, how to survive, how to be healthy and how to be whole.
We have inherited a worldview that we can separate spiritual development and growth from the rest of life, and that’s simply not how God designed us as people. Not only did the Hebrews get this and Jesus and the New Testament writers get this, scholars are understanding and some of the new brain studies are showing that we really have to be much more integrative in how we see ourselves and live out our relationships. Kids need people around them who will demonstrate love and safety and nurture and grace…. which communicates Gospel to kids as they grow up. Kids need to feel and experience the Gospel, especially the young child as his brain develops. They need to feel the Gospel more than being trained and educated in the doctrines of the Gospel. So, the real needs are to receive the blessings of adults that care for them as God intended. That’s a spiritual need as well as a psychological and sociological need.
Q. And when these deep needs are not being met by an adult, or through a relationship with God, how does a young person respond or act out?
A. All Christians, regardless of our age, are trying to figure out what it means to be in a loving and healthy relationship with Christ. So a 12, 17 or 22 year old, if they have not had enough adults in their life to communicate the Gospel by their actions, as well as teach them who God is in Christ, and to learn to trust them, these young people are going to try to find ways to cope with life, and the coping mechanisms are always self-protective. These mechanisms are chosen to help the youth push away pain, deal with trauma (divorce, abuse, etc.) and figure out a way to navigate through life with its challenges. The problem is, even those aged 22 or so, are focused on the “right now.” They think that the decision that they make now, today, is the best decision for their own protection. They don't stop to think and understand that the consequences of their decisions are going to make things worse. So, some will turn to depression. Many will turn to self-injury or cutting. Some will turn to substance abuse. Some will turn to a fixation on sports, or bullying, or some form of technology use. And, unfortunately, some will turn to just flat out violence.
All of these coping mechanisms are in response to being in a world where they feeling alone or unsafe or feeling under intense stress.
Even for some Christian kids…. here’s a really important thing to know. For a Christian kid that loves Jesus, they still have this really short term view of making decisions. And so they can dilute themselves into possibly thinking that God has told them to do what they did, would be my guess. We don't really know their motives going in, but often our faith becomes this way of also reinforcing how we cope. So there will be these kids who self injure or become fixated on sports or aggression or alcohol addiction and invite God into honoring and supporting that choice… because their relationship with God is one more ‘fix’ in their immediate circumstance, and they don’t see cause and affect. That’s a really big issue when it comes to a violent response.
Q. In light of what you’ve talked about, what might be the appropriate response, to the Shady Hook Elementary School shooting, by adults who are parents?
A. Obviously the rhetoric about gun control has kicked in. And there's the rhetoric about the media’s influence and videogames and television. And the rhetoric about the need to have appropriate safeguards in schools. Even though these things are important, what we need to recognize as a society is that we as parents and adults have a systemic problem of abandoning our kids. There is just no question about that. This is a deeper systemic problem. This is related to the bullying epidemic that has gotten worse and worse over the last five years. We focus on the bullies and why they should not be doing what they do. And we focus on providing coping skills to those being bullied. We need to take a step back and ask, “Why are bullies being bullies in the first place?”
In other words, we need to figure our how to come together and surround all our kids with what they need. We need to strengthen mental health. We need to strengthen advocacy for parents. We need to rebuild our society of coming together in community.
So, what can we do that’s actually proactive? Every adult needs to love four or five kids who are not their own children. If every adult would see every child as belonging to them in community, especially in our smaller communities, then our kids would be better off. Until we do that, we’re going to have much worse issues as our young people grow into adulthood.
Q. When can a young person begin to have a sense of faith in God and what role do adults and the church community play?
A. What I think we all called to do is recognize that God has created us to find a sense of self, our hope, our health and a willingness to allow him to be God. That means we follow him and trust him and respond to what he is doing in the world to bring his Kingdom in. So, in other words, the chief end of humanity, of every person, is to trust God as opposed to self and align ourselves with his purposes for the world, with his intent and his heart. Look at Micah 6:8, "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God," and then to not do this alone.
This is the fallacy of the last 50 years of American Christianity. We’ve made it a solitary faith and it’s simply not. When Jesus said, in John 15, “I have one command,” that’s pretty significant, and that’s the love we’re called to have for one another.
At what age does this kick in? God plants a seed in us at quite a young age. But accepting Christ, the rebirth at age 6 is different than the rededication at age 16, which is different than the brokenness of sin at the age of 25 or 30. It’s a process that might begin very early as we experience the Gospel when adults engage with kids in a way that Jesus calls us to. It’s ‘feelable’ when the brain begins to be concrete at about age 15. When we begin to experience the love of God through others, it seeps into our heart and soul and mind. And then we can start to grab hold of it and start to own it at about age 15 or 16. But without the context of Christian community, this can almost never take serious root.
Q. What message would you want to communicate to those who read this who may not have a relationship with God?
A. An individual cannot survive without hope. And the gift of God, in Christ, is hope…. that we are not locked in this temporal world where we have to discover our own sense of well being or our own sense of satisfaction or health, but that God has invaded human history… this is Christmas…that he’s come into our world, and that changes everything. Hope is what God has done and will do as he takes us through the things we wrestle with in life. To anybody who’s trying to figure all this out, I’d say that the hope that we have is in the God who has entered into this earth and has invited us to enter into his Kingdom. That’s hope. And the hope that we find in Christ is the hope that delivers and sustains us.
Q. Are there any final comments you’d like to make?
A. We’ve just got to get over ourselves as adults and love kids… all kids, even those who are not of our natural birth. We have to realize that giving away our lives to our children is a calling for every generation.