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SANDY BANKS

Kids Need to See Beyond Upheaval of Adolescence

April 27, 1999|SANDY BANKS

I'd like to think I would have known if my teenage son were collecting guns and building bombs, amassing an arsenal grand enough to blow his school to kingdom come.

I'd like to think I would have ventured into his bedroom, and discovered the shotgun barrel on his dresser or noticed the swastikas on his clothes when I was doing the laundry.

But I don't know . . . I can only imagine. My child's adolescence has just begun; the hardest part still lies ahead, uncharted--and now frightening--terrain.

*

There was a myth I held, like many parents, when my kids were very small and their needs were so large and unrelenting:

When they get older, I thought, they'll need me less.

Now I know it's not less, just differently.

We don't know enough yet about the families of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to divvy up the blame for last week's tragedy. Typical suburban folks, it seems . . . middle-class, nice neighborhoods, prescribed two-parent families.

It may be that something was missing inside those well-appointed homes. Or it may be that those parents are only guilty of the same kind of benign neglect that many of us demonstrate, unwittingly, as our teenage children drift away.

Like many of you, though, I can't help but wonder: Shouldn't those folks have known something was horribly wrong? And isn't there a way we can tell if kids are veering beyond typical rebellion and descending into teenage hell?

Yes . . . if we're paying attention, says Delbert S. Elliott, who runs the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, just down the freeway from Littleton.

"We know what a good and healthy relationship looks like," says Elliott, "and our children need to have that with some adult . . . even if it's not with us."

Most kids--and most families--survive the tumult of adolescence relatively unscathed.

But parents ought to worry if their kids are so isolated that the only people they talk to are other kids. Elliott says "that means they don't have any connections with people with more wisdom and experience, who can give them feedback about what they're going through."

Every school through the ages has had its outcasts, its angry loners.

But, Elliott says, "when you look at kids like these--who have gone through being ostracized, marginalized, maybe into some sort of weird lifestyle--and they've made it through, they'll invariably tell you, 'There was some adult who took some interest in me.'

"Maybe not a parent, but a teacher, a coach, a neighbor. . . . 'Someone who'll listen to me, talk to me, not give up on me when I do stupid things. But keep on giving me advice, keep on believing in me.' "

Elliott calls that a "protective factor," the kind of thing that can insulate children from danger, keep them from feeling overwhelmed and offset problems with parents or peers.

It provides a kind of long-term perspective they can't get from their friends, one that can carry them through, lift them over the pain of more immediate woes. "It's someone," Elliott says, "telling them that as they get older, a lot of this will pass away, it won't always be this way."

There are other important protective factors, he adds, and one of them is involvement with a church or synagogue. "Focus on the spiritual side of life," Elliott says. "Don't think that because they're teenagers, you can neglect their moral development.

"It's when you get kids who are alienated and who have not committed themselves to a set of moral values and principles, that you have teenagers who turn violent."

*

I've read the explanations, the apologies, the excuses. . . . They were nice boys, their friends say, just a little odd. They were angry. Bright kids, pushed over the edge by taunting from classmates at school.

But what stays with me are the words of the Jefferson County sheriff, who has seen the dead bodies, the exploded bombs, who has searched the bedrooms of the killers' well-appointed homes and has read their handwritten diary.

He's got no doubt that the parents must share the blame. "A lot of this stuff was clearly visible," noted Sheriff John P. Stone, "and the parents should have known."

And for all the hand-wringing over motives and warning signs, he can pinpoint the place where someone should have intervened, and it doesn't take a PhD in psychology: "I get a real concern," he says, "with people who identify with Adolf Hitler as a hero."

So should we.

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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