Unthinkable. That's how most of us reacted to the news of Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. As the father of four children and stepfather of two beautiful little girls, ages 6 and 7, the tragedy is so horrendous that I literally can't bear to think about it. I start to envision what happened in those classrooms, start to imagine the pain of the parents, and then I stop. It's too much. It's overwhelming.
But there is one disturbing aspect of this tragedy that I find myself thinking about frequently, and that is the possibility that what happened in Newtown is not about guns and gun control at all. Perhaps it's not even about mental illness.
What if -- and this idea is almost as disturbing as the event itself -- what if Adam Lanza was normal? Initial reports suggest that he was shy and introverted, but no one to my knowledge has so far produced any evidence that there was anything seriously wrong with him. There was, it seems, no sign of schizophrenia, severe clinical depression, or anti-social personality disorder, for example. He was uncomfortable around other people and he sometimes "shut down" in high school, but his grades were decent both in high school and in most of the college courses he took, and he never got in trouble. He didn't seem to have any close friends, but he did hang out with peers enough to participate in high-tech gaming events. He was shy and introverted, to be sure, but mainly a normal young man.
So what happened?
The exact events leading up to the tragedy might never be known, because the main person who witnessed them -- his mother -- was his first victim. And those events are undoubtedly very important, because unlike the shootings in Columbine and Aurora, there are few signs in this case (at least so far) of premeditation. He tried to buy a gun the day before the shootings but in fact carried out the crime using three guns belonging to his mother -- in other words, guns that were on hand.
In other words, it's possible that Lanza had been contemplating this crime for a relatively short time -- possibly for only a day or so.
What could cause a relatively normal young man to get so angry that he could kill twenty beautiful children, six teachers, and his own mother in cold blood?
Based on research I've been conducting with teens and adults since the late 1990s, I don't think we can rule out a possibility that is truly frightening.
What if Lanza committed this horrendous crime simply because he felt powerless - -because he felt like he had no control over his own life? What if he committed mass murder -- starting, notably, with his mother -- to prove to himself and the world that he was powerful? And why the young children? Because, as any bully can tell you, there is no more dramatic way to demonstrate your power than to attack the powerless.
In my recent book, Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence, I summarize a variety of research conducted by me and others that supports this troubling idea. For example, a study I conducted with Diane Dumas in the 1990s showed a strong relationship between the extent to which teens are "infantilized" -- that is, treated like children when in fact they are actually competent young adults -- and the extent to which they act out or express anger toward adults. I also summarize extensive research suggesting that virtually all of the serious turmoil we see in America's teens is the result of two factors: infantilization and the isolation of teens from responsible adults. And let's not underestimate the extent of this turmoil. According to the 2010 National Comorbidity Survey, 49.5 percent of our teens are diagnosable with at least one behavioral, emotional, or substance abuse disorder.
Anthropological studies show that in cultures in which young people are integrated into adult society at an early age, the tumultuous period we call "adolescence" is entirely absent. But we hold our young people back, mistakenly buying into the media-driven assertion that all young people are equally incompetent and irresponsible. A recent study I completed with more than 60,000 people between ages 9 and 83 demonstrates otherwise: More than 30 percent of our teens are actually more competent than the median adult in America across a wide range of adult abilities -- cognitive, social, and physical.
What's more, as British psychiatrist and teen therapist Dr. Philip Graham pointed out in his recent book, The End of Adolescence, when you hold back young people, many become obsessed with issues of powerlessness, and some become extremely angry or depressed, which is almost certainly why suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens in the U.S.
Could this be what happened in Newtown? Was skinny, shy, powerless Adam Lanza lashing out at his mother and the world to demonstrate his power?
If so, we have a bigger problem, America, because my research shows unequivocally that our society is rapidly increasing the extent to which we infantilize our young people. We might be generating more Adam Lanzas every year.
A Ph.D. of Harvard University, Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the former Editor-in-Chief of Psychology Today magazine. His book, The Case Against Adolescence, was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in the case Graham v. Florida. Further information about Dr. Epstein's work on this topic can be found at the following websites: http://Teen20.com, http://ExtendedChildhoodDisorder.com, http://HowAdultAreYou.com, http://TeenParentingSkills.com, and http://MyParentingSkills.com.