by Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, Ph.D.
It is impossible to know what caused the young, intelligent man, to hoard weapons, die his hair red and storm into a movie theater killing others. By accounts, his back ground was upper middle class with connected parents and fine schooling and high intellect. We hear that he was a bit of a loner, and that he had an odd voice on his answering machine.
We do know a few things: intelligence doesn’t equate to mental health. We are often shocked when someone who is bright and creative is also depressed or anxious or deviant. We also know that odd or destructive behavior does not always mean mental illness. Sexual predators like Jerry Sandusky can have dual lives – one part normal philanthropist, another part compulsions that harm in others while convincing himself that he loves those young boys and. This isn’t mental illness; it is self-deception.
We are all capable of convincing ourselves that destructive behavior is justified. We can all have dark nights of the soul. We are all capable of harboring and nurturing dangerous fantasies that aggrandize ourselves and convince ourselves of the vileness of others. These, after all, are the dynamics of war.
So what keeps most of us from mass murder or serial molestation of others? It is the foundation of relationship with others who know us completely, the bad and the good. It is keeping all of ourselves out in relationship and not hiding the dark corners from ourselves or others. It is mindfulness that keeps us aware of our own pain and can reach out to the pain of others. It is true, honest relationships, even when those relationships are painful and disappointing that keep us from living in the dark night of our own souls.
As parents, grandparents, teachers, therapists, physicians, nurses, social workers, and judges… we need to be child-wise. Being child-wise is bringing the wisdom of knowing what is true and what is right, coupled with a true understanding of the need for children to have healthy relationships.
In these days of instant electronic communication, sound bites and television shows that revel in the humiliation of others, it is difficult to remember how to relate to other human beings. As parents, we have to be present for our children and guide them in meaningful relationships; help them see a balance when they are hurt; be living models of succeeding through humility and hard work, not through demonizing those who don’t agree with us or who choose a different path. As parents, we need to guide our children in meaningful relationships that will allow them to become successful adults.
In the upcoming weeks it will be interesting to understand the nature of this young man’s relationships. Who knew him? Who avoided him? Who stayed in connection with him? This will tell us as much as any diagnosis or any second guessing about his motivations.
I wonder, were other people ChildWise with him?
Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and has been the clinical director of Intermountain for over 21 years. She has served as adjunct faculty at Syracuse University, and has trained medical interns from Upstate New York Medical Center, and psychology, social work, and counseling interns from across Montana. Dr. Kohlstaedt has appeared on Prime Time Live, National Public Radio, and in the Los Angeles Times to discuss attachment disorders and has trained staff, parents, and professionals across Montana.Licensed Psychologist, Montana and New York.