By Suzy Yehl Marta —
Josh was a quiet kid, a seventh grader in a mid-size, Midwest city whose parents’ divorce left him bereft. Fortunately, his school offered a peer-support group for students struggling with family transitions, and Josh chose to attend. Meeting every week, the kids in the group shared their pain, confusion and divided loyalties. But not Josh.
Despite faithfully coming to each session, he remained the quiet boy who sat to the side and didn’t say a word. Is he getting anything out of this program? the facilitator wondered. One day, after the other students drifted from the room, Josh approached the facilitator and handed him a smudged piece of paper that had obviously been folded and re-folded many times. “You can throw this out. I don’t need this anymore,” Josh said quietly and walked away.
Left alone in the room, the facilitator opened the sheet — it was a suicide note that Josh had written at the beginning of the school year. There was no question then whether the boy was benefiting from being in the support group.
For Josh — and the tens of thousands of kids like him — emotional support groups and programs provide a much-needed emotional safety net. Left on his own to spiral downward, Josh might have carried out his suicide threat. Or even worse, in his despair, he might have killed others before taking his own life, like the two alienated young men at Columbine a decade ago.
In ways large and small, our youth have become expert at killing one another, whether with a hail of bullets at a mall or school or a single shot in a dark alley. While we can’t ever know all the circumstances that lead someone to violence, time and again, we learn that many attacks are unleashed by young individuals whose lives have been shaped by traumatic loss and crises that were left unresolved and festering.
A loss event is a cruel experience. Especially for children. In its wake, it creates pain that erodes a child’s emotional foundation, chips away at self confidence and destroys hope. Loss erases a vital source of love and comfort and leaves our children anxious and angry. Without intervention, their despair often spirals into depression that intensifies anger and hopelessness. “I was getting real mean,” said a 10-year-old boy after his mother died. Kids caught in this vicious cycle, said his teacher, are volcanoes waiting to explode.
Unfortunately, among our youth, loss and traumatic crises are epidemic. According to one study, 9 out of 10 high school seniors experience an “adult difficulty,” like death or natural disaster, before graduation. Among children of all ages, 70 percent live in families shaped by potentially life-altering events such as death, divorce or abandonment. Adults don’t go through these events unscathed, and neither do kids. Like the rest of us, they need guidance and intervention to heal their emotional wounds.
Studying the attackers in six school shootings, the FBI identified nine general warning signs for potential violence. One is the lack of coping skills or strategies for handling personal life crises and another is the absence of an emotional support system. These are problems we can solve!
Supportive resources, like Rainbows, the grief support charity I started 25 years ago, are readily available and when they are offered to struggling youth, the kids benefit. In 2001, University of Illinois researchers asked parents of kids in a Rainbows group for children of divorce to identify how the program impacted their kids. More than half said Rainbows helped their sons and daughters control anger. Seventy two percent said it helped their children stay out of trouble. Then the researchers asked the kids: Did Rainbows help? Yes, they responded: 80 percent said they learned new ways to solve problems; 98 percent said they’d recommend the program to their friends and classmates!
Last summer, I conducted a series of anti-violence workshops with at-risk teens in Virginia. A number of the boys were from low-income, single-parent homes who had either been abandoned by their fathers as infants or who didn’t even know who their fathers were. Many had grown up with a steady diet of violence; some had seen people killed.
These kids had plenty of reasons to be angry and were one step away from joining gangs and slipping into that maelstrom that embraces violence as a way of life and death. Using Rainbows methods, the sessions focused on boosting self esteem and teaching these young men positive coping skills and anger management.
For many of the participants, the workshops provided new ways to see themselves, and offered alternatives, options, choices they’d never realized existed. It would be naïve to hope that every kid at the workshops will shun gang membership or will never pick up a gun when provoked, but at the same time it is reasonable to assume that we’ve presented a new path for a few. And that’s an important start.
No child, no teen, should be left emotionally untended — no matter their social, economic, racial or educational status; no matter what circumstance is responsible for their loss and suffering. All branches of the community — residents, schools, social service agencies, corporate leaders, faith communities, government officials at every level — can play vital roles in responding to the emotional needs of youth.
After every tragedy and poignant headline, experts cite the need for intervention and prevention programs. We need to start early; we need to start now, they advise.
Suzy Yehl Marta is president and founder of www.rainbows.org.Tags: grief, hope