Teenagers and Sociopathy

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The word of the day today, sent straight to my email inbox from dictionary.com was “columbine”, meaning “dove-like”, among other things. It stated that the columbine flower was named such for its strong resemblance to a group of doves. I thought that that sounded interesting, and didn’t believe I’d actually seen columbine flowers, so I Googled “columbine” without really thinking about what would pop up in the search, (flowers?), and I was greeted by dozens of flashy article headlines related to the Columbine HS shooting. I was in college when the shooting occurred, barely out of my teen years myself, and remember quite clearly all of the hype and speculation related to this event. I remember feeling empathy for both the victims and the shooters, which of course I could never say aloud in mixed company. High school and my teen years were a special kind of hell, as is true for many people, and for those people who had happy childhoods, never wanted for anything and went to a nice, suburban, upstanding school, it’s something they have a difficult time understanding.
My first reaction upon being greeted by the page full of Columbine HS articles was straight up disgust. I hated all of the guesswork that occurred in the aftermath. Was it the music they listened to? Were they bullied? Were their parents to blame? Was the school to blame? Whom can we blame?! Obviously someone or something has to take the fall for this, and adults country wide were wracking their brains trying to figure out what thing, things, or people should take the brunt of responsibility for turning two obviously upstanding boys into murderous maniacs. It’s got to be the music… But for me, being still very close to my teenage self and mentality, I knew they’d not find any answers, because there would BE no answers. I knew in my gut, or my heart, or my subconscious, or wherever it is that these instinctual feelings and reactions are stored, exactly how those two boys felt, and it was nothing so simple as bullies or not getting laid or listening to heart pumping music with angry lyrics. It was pure and simple rage, and it was contempt, and it was this feeling that you could not quite identify that something, everything, was not right with the world, and this urge to correct it that ran so deep that violence didn’t really seem all that excessive. It seemed, in fact, the most apt solution. Nothing can fix this but wiping the slate clean. And yes, I know I sound like I was a crazy person, but teenagers are most certainly “crazy”, and I’ll explain why momentarily.
Just as I was about to narrow my search to columbine flowers, one headline stood out. It claimed to know the REAL reason why they did it, and it was a Slate article. Being one of my more favored sources of news and information, I decided to have a look at this article from 2004: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/04/the_depressive_and_the_psychopath.single.html The headline was particularly interesting. “The Depressive and the Psychopath”. As stated in my previous post, it was made clear how I feel about calling people by their mental health diagnoses, but in this case I was willing to let it slide. It appeared that they were just trying to make a point, and it certainly did its job, it piqued my curiosity.
The article describes one of the Columbine shooters as being inwardly tortured, extremely depressed and prone to fits of destructive rage, the other outwardly calm and polite, but inwardly contemptuous of both peers and authority figures, having a major superiority complex in some instances, a practiced liar who enjoyed getting away with it, and the article describes them as being a “depressive” and a “psychopath”, otherwise known as a sociopath. Had these two NOT been known as the notorious Columbine shooters, had they not been under such microscopic scrutiny and someone were to view their case histories individually, what would most people believe of their behavior? Typical teenagers! It is so very common for teenagers to exhibit signs of depression, labile mood, acting out behavior, poor judgement and poor impulse control. It is also very common for teenagers to lack empathy, to lie, be contemptuous of peers and ESPECIALLY authority figures. Particularly if those teenagers have suffered any kind of perceived injustice, mistreatment (perceived or actual), if they are different in any way from their peers which includes being of superior intellect, having different style of dress, listening to different music from what is popular, or anything that may set them apart from the crowd, because even as teenagers yearn to be unique and find their individuality, they also yearn not to stand out.
All teenagers are “crazy”. Not necessarily mentally ill, but crazy in the sense that they don’t tend to think or act rationally or consistently, and their emotions and behavior tend to be unpredictable, to say the least. Teenagers have a very difficult time understanding cause and effect. They have very poor ability to think their actions through to a logical and inevitable conclusion.
There are a few reasons for this, some biological, some social. The teenage brain is pretty bizarre. It’s going through a period where it’s almost literally rewiring itself. New connections are being formed all over the place and old connections are being rerouted. This is why parents often stare at their 14 or 15 year old, baffled, wondering where their child went and who this alien creature is living in their house. When just a year before they may have had a smart, logical, even tempered, maybe even bubbly tween or young teen, now they have a moody, pensive teen whose behaviors are beyond comprehension. Suddenly their well planned and effective system of rewards and consequences no longer works. The parent tells the teen they’re grounded, the teen says they don’t care. The teen no longer does their chores despite the fact that this means they’ll no longer receive their weekly allowance, then they balk when they aren’t given money at the end of the week. However, if they’re offered to do a side job, such as mowing the lawn, to receive pay that day, they’re often amenable, even though the side job is much more difficult than their assigned weekly chores. This is due to that inability to correlate long term cause and effect. Instant gratification, a reward for something done right now, is very easy to grasp. Shirking duties throughout the week doesn’t necessarily correlate to the loss of money at the end of the week. It’s not that they don’t know that they won’t get paid, it’s that they’re hard pressed to illicit an emotional response right now for something that will happen so far from right now, so they decide they’ll deal with it when the time comes. Then when the time comes…so does the explosive emotional response. Often parents will ask their teen, after they’ve done something particularly incomprehensible, “What were you thinking?!”, and the teen will respond in all earnestness, “I don’t know!”, because they really do not know. They weren’t thinking things through. They only thought that at that moment they wanted to do something, so they did, consequences be damned.
So what makes the two boys at Columbine HS different from other teens? It certainly wasn’t their aspirations. I can’t even count how many times my friends and I discussed vandalizing or blowing up the school. The school was generally our focal point because it was A) the place we spent most of our time, and B) the place that generated most of our daily stressors. We couldn’t conceivably blow up the whole city, or the whole country, but the school was doable. But we never intended on following through. I honestly think the biggest difference between those two boys and other teens with similar aspirations was merely means (they had access to guns, and I hate to say that because I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with responsible gun ownership. Then again, giving your children easy access to your gun cabinet/safe isn’t really all that responsible), and that their two personalities fed off each other in such a way that their grand dreams of blowing up the school didn’t end in chuckles and a trip to the mall to get a slice of pizza. They egged each other on to continue planning and to follow through when other kids would not have. So the Slate article is correct in discussing the toxic mingling of their relationship with each other. However, I seriously dislike the portrayal of the boys’ futures had they not followed through. Eventually the teen brain matures. Many teens reconcile their anger, disdain and contempt as this occurs. They develop the capacity for empathy as they lose their haughty sense of self (which is often a mask for insecurity), and as they stop taking things so seriously, stop brooding over all the things that anger them to their core, such as the website with the ill written list of things that one of the boys hated, they start to be more appreciative of the differences of others, more accepting of their flaws, more insightful of their own flaws, their own strengths, the insecurities that drove them to be so angry. They grow up. I don’t believe that either of these boys would have been predestined to a life of crime. It’s so easy, in hindsight, to pore over their writings and scrutinize their activities and say THERE is the mind of a killer, that is the WHERE and the WHEN that the crazy started, and it never would have stopped.
It concerns me that people might read or have read articles such as this and will overreact to teenagers’ behavior and move to stifle them, when really teenagers should be given more opportunities for self-sufficiency, not less. They should not be treated as children until the moment they turn 18, then turned loose into the world, proclaimed magically gone from child to adult in a day, with no life skills, no critical thinking skills, never having had an opportunity to explore their own boundaries. Teenagers should be treated with respect, to give them a sense of self worth and a reason to respect, not disdain, their elders. They will be adults before you know it, and they have a lot of learning to do in a short amount of time, all while their brains are throwing them into chaos, so no matter how easy or difficult their lives may be, the life of a teenager is still hard.
And by the way…the columbine flower looks nothing like a flock of doves. :p

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