With congressmen and women arguing about gun violence and pointing the finger at everyone except themselves, let us have the courage to take a hard look at the state of boys in our country — and use our collective angst to actually do something to help them.
Why, we must ask ourselves, would any young man think about destroying the lives of innocent children? What are we missing?
As one who has met thousands of young men — some like Nikolas Cruz — in my 30 years of practicing medicine, indulge me a moment.
Here are some commonalities that he has with other mentally ill young men who have committed similar heinous acts — and none of us can afford to remain blind to them.
Violent gaming. Every young man who has carried out horrific acts of violence against others has spent hours upon hours alone in his room training himself to be more violent by shooting, raping and maiming innocent “people” on screens.
Before you become defensive about your male loved ones and their gaming habits, hear me out. There is a clear link between playing violent games and increased aggression in young men. Studies show this — and we cannot sit by and ignore their clear role in altering the minds of ill men like Cruz who feed on them.
These games literally train our boys to act out as they desensitize them to human life around them.
They are sick games — and if we are going to kick, scream and demand gun reform, we need to be honest enough with ourselves and outlaw these games, too.
Isolation. Boys who isolate themselves from friends and family are telling loved ones that they need help. Again, when boys become depressed, they withdraw from healthy relationships and lock themselves away from real life.
In America, we have so distorted what we expect from teens that we have come to see isolation as a normal part of teen development. It isn’t. It is a red flag for depression — and any parent with a son who spends hours upon hours alone in his room, be warned. This is not healthy or normal behavior, so don’t let friends convince you that it is.
If someone could have followed Nikolas Cruz around the weeks leading up to the recent shooting, I’m certain they would have found him alone a great deal of the time.
Hatred of masculinity — and men feeling disrespected. We are living in a country that not only dislikes maleness and masculinity — it abhors it. We have systematically emasculated our men, and the result is anger and rage from them.
Men and boys, studies show, cannot thrive in any relationship or social system where they feel disrespected. I know this because I have had the privilege of working with people within the NFL over the past five years. These men have told me repeatedly that the one act that will make many of them rage isn’t losing a game, being ignored or insulted — it’s feeling disrespected.
As one recently told me: “Watch games closely. Fights don’t break out when we lose a game but when one player feels that another man has disrespected him. That puts us over the edge.”
We have told men that masculinity is oppressive and they should hide it. We have identified masculine men as wife abusers, child abandoners, and selfish pigs who should be suppressed and put in their place. We want them to be kind, submissive, selfless and cooperative.
If they exhibit leadership and strength, we scream at them — and when they act on protective instincts, we call them chauvinistic. We have applauded, even championed, femininity in men and bullied those who denounce it as unhealthy. We have confused men so much that, even if they want to be proud of being male, we force them to hide it.
What we are seeing is the backlash. Men can live without love better than they can live without respect, as the New York Times best-selling author Emerson Eggerich writes in “Love and Respect.” His words should ring loud and clear in the minds of every mother of a son. Disagree, challenge or argue with your son, and he will be fine. But never show him disrespect — or he will live with shame and deep anger toward you and himself.
Depression and loneliness in children. Depression and anxiety in children and teens are on the rise. We who practice pediatrics find ourselves at a loss as to what to do many times because offices of good pediatric psychiatrists are full.
Many children suffer from depression because no one is paying attention to them. Many parents work full time outside the home and sign kids up for one activity after another — but never spend enough time with them to adequately meet their needs.
In our area, the average wait time to see a psychiatrist is three months.
The physicians in our office routinely screen kids for anxiety and depression; and now the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending it for all pediatricians. This is a good thing, but there is one problem most of us doctors have: Once we identify a child as depressed, finding good counselors can be challenging.
Many children suffer from depression because the reality is, no one is paying attention to them. Many parents work full time outside the home, and they sign kids up for one activity after another — but never spend enough time with them to adequately meet their needs.
This is not a slight to hardworking parents. Most work out of financial necessity. But kids need time with parents. They need connection with their parents more than soccer, ballet or any extracurricular activity. Without adequate face-to-face time with parents, children become lonely and feel abandoned — and this sets them up for depression and anxiety.
Here’s the good news: Any parent can help.
America, pay attention here. Our kids need family time. Our men can’t take being disrespected any longer. We as wives, mothers, colleagues and professionals of all stripes must be focused on the business of speaking better of our men and giving them the freedom to embrace masculine strength. I will guarantee you that what drove Nikolas Cruz wasn’t a sense of pride but of worthlessness and shame as a man.
Mental illness in teens is rising, and we must pay more attention and help. Yes, we need the FBI and police to do a better job of protecting our children, but every single one of us mothers needs more backbone. We need to be courageous enough to respect our men and boys.
We need to be less accepting of violence in media — particularly when it ruins boys — and pay more attention to our kids. Yes, we have selfishly abandoned our children at times in pursuit of what we want and kids can’t take this. We need to be there for them, not only to meet their very real needs for connection, but also to see what they are up to. We need to start paying more attention.
We are not powerless. We can act. And though I never met him or examined him, I am convinced that if a few more women in Nikolas Cruz’s life would have been courageous enough to call evil evil, confront his clear mental illness and pay attention, well, just maybe ….
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing, May 2017), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.