This blog is primarily an observation. It is not an opinion, a rant or a political statement. It’s an observation and subsequent pondering about the state of our world and a level of hateful thought and atrociously evil actions that we are witnessing as an almost daily occurrence.
Back in the day when I worked with school mental health services and juvenile justice systems, youth that were viewed as unattached presented extreme challenges. Many were likely diagnosed as having a Reactive Attachment Disorder in an effort to receive psychiatric treatment. Their behavior made it impossible for them to escape notice as their histories typically involved cruelty to animals and other children, a fascination with fire and shame related to issues such as bed-wetting. For various reasons, some children are unable to form healthy attachments with caregivers. Often times this is due to inconsistent care from multiple caregivers and can include neglect and abuse. Many with RAD have a history of institutional living as an infant and during childhood. Sometimes referred to as children without a conscience, traditional treatment was rarely successful because these children were said to lack the ability to empathize. This being the case, their behavior had no filter to screen out hurtful actions that may have been done with intentionality or because there was no emotion to regulate the conduct. Theorists often connected this to infantile issues of trust that were not met or honored on a consistent basis.
Lately in the news, we hear about young people who seem attracted to an alignment with extreme groups bent on acts of horror that shock us and seem out of the realm of our imagination. Profiles of these recruits seem to mirror those of unattached youth. Many have experienced traumatic early separation from caregivers, have lived in multiple institutional settings, often were neglected or abused and generally have difficulty trusting others and entering into intimate socially acceptable relationships. This is not a difficult premise to consider, given countries and cultures that have been in extreme turmoil for centuries. My observation and questioning lies with this possibility; what happens if large numbers of unattached individuals attach to each other? This may sound like a contradiction but isn’t.
For years, the field of prevention has been fortunate to build programs and interventions based on the Social Development Strategy (SDS) created by the Social Development Research Group. The SDS provides a framework which contains three major objectives: Skills, Opportunities and Recognition. In a nutshell, SDS instills protective factors within youth if they are taught educational, social and life Skills to navigate through society, Opportunities to fulfill and manifest those skills, and Recognition for doing so. Healthy children in healthy communities are taught skills that allow them to sing, act or play baseball. They are given the opportunity to join a little league team and sing in a choir or act in the school play. They are recognized with applause, congratulations, and encouragement to tackle whatever comes next. For a multitude of social, political, cultural, economic or religious reasons, many children and youth are deprived of this paradigm.
Deprived that is until an alternative is available to them. Authorities who have worked in the gang culture in the U.S. see the SDS framework fitting nicely with gang recruitment and activities. I will teach you the street skills necessary to be a petty thief, I will give you opportunities to prove yourself worthy and I will recognize you with membership. Really not unlike joining a little league baseball team, just typically illegal. The longing for belonging is that strong. Now let me give you a black uniform and a knife, gun or suicide vest and teach you how to use them at one of our training sites. Let me give you the opportunity to act in our behalf, one which we feel called to perform, or acts that are primarily designed to encourage hurting people to hurt people. Finally, let me recognize your actions one way or another, perhaps eternally.
Unattached children without a conscience grow up to become unattached adults who have gained skills which mask their insufficiencies and allow them to imitate appropriateness. They become highly adept manipulators looking for prey and repeating generational patterns. Their behaviors can never be excused but perhaps explained a bit.