Latest School Shooting: What Causes a Teen to Snap?

·Senior Editor

Jaylen Fryberg. Photo by Jaylen Fryberg/Instagram.

We’ve begun to grow immune, to some extent, to the shock of school-shooting stories — at least the sort that involve quiet, disconnected loners bursting with anger, à la Eric Harris or Adam Lanza. But the latest incident to grab headlines — that of 14-year-old lone gunman Jaylen Fryberg and his Washington state high school rampage — has come packaged with a somewhat unique narrative, presenting the young man as a popular, happy, “homecoming prince,” whose killing of two teens and himself appears to have shocked all who knew him.

"Nobody would have expected it from him,” classmate Jordan Luton told CNN, echoing the reactions of many others who knew Fryberg.               

But follow-up reports have indicated that a series of angry tweets leading up to the shooting have indicated that all was not well with the high school freshman, who appears to have had a passion for hunting, family, sports, music, and his Native American culture as a member of the Tulalip tribe. And that emotional social-media trail, according to experts in the field of adolescent psychology, is not at all surprising.

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“Nobody ‘snaps’,” notes Barbara Greenberg, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist specializing in adolescents and the coauthor of “Teenage as A Second Language — A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual.” She tells Yahoo Parenting, “It’s a real myth that people are doing well and then triggered into committing murder. There is always an emotional buildup to this.” Further, Greenberg notes, “Even though he looked happy and was voted homecoming king, that’s meaningless. Popularity is not related to emotional stability. It’s why ‘popularity’ is such a problematic term.”

Students mourning after last week’s shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington. Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images.

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of the new “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” agrees. “There’s a big difference between being popular and having close friends, and the latter is much more important than the former, as it serves as kind of a protective factor,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “Lots of popular kids are not happy. By the same token, kids with just a couple of close friends who aren’t so popular can be much happier. 

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He adds that, “It is almost so common as to become cliché, that after something like this happens we hear things like, ‘We thought this person was perfectly normal.’ But after some time has elapsed and the media has had time to dig a little deeper, usually we find out more that helps make sense of it.”

Students described Chris Plaskon, for example, the teen being charged as an adult in the April stabbing death of 16-year-old Maren Sanchez, as a “class clown.” It was later reported that Plaskon was exhibiting signs of psychosis. Elliot Rodger, who killed six and wounded more than a dozen students in May during the Isla Vista shooting rampage, was quickly discovered to have left a long trail of clues as to what was burning underneath his facade, including  “Manifesto,” a chilling diary, and years of mental health issues. And Jared Padgett, the 15-year-old killer behind an Oregon school shooting in June, had been described as  “good kid,” and “a leader,” whose only initial clues of a dark side included “liking” heavy metal and weapons on Facebook.

As far as why a promising young man like Fryberg would go to such extreme measures over a breakup or a betrayal (both of which have been raised as possible motives in the case), Steinberg points out factors that are important to remember regarding adolescents. “We definitely know that teens are more impulsive, and we know that they are more easily emotionally aroused, both negatively and positively,” he says. “They are also still maturing as far as their capacities to manage stress.”

However, Steinberg says, “Most teenagers wouldn’t react to something like [a breakup] in this way.” Plus, there have been plenty of examples of adults reacting violently to such betrayals. “I don’t think, in these sorts of situations, teens snap any more than adults do,” he notes. “But stress can often build up to the point where it overtaxes one’s ability to cope with it, and everybody responds in different ways.”

So how can parents know when their teens’ moodiness is just a signal of normal ups-and-downs, and when it’s cause for real alarm? Both Steinberg and Greenberg stress the importance of paying attention to non-verbal clues, as well as being actively involved in their lives. Tips for sleuthing out trouble before it erupts include the following:

Look for changes in behavior. “A teenager won’t usually say, ‘I’m mad. I’m sad. I’m depressed,’” Greenberg notes. So be on the lookout for more nuanced, nonverbal clues — a rise in irritability, sleeping more or less than usual, deteriorating grades, isolating themselves socially, or a general apathy where there had not been such behavior before, she says. “Our general rule of thumb,” Steinberg adds, “is if they are showing an atypical pattern of behavior for at least two weeks, you should probably consult somebody.”

Pay particular attention after breakup. “Anytime a kid has a breakup, you have to watch that kid carefully — especially boys,” Greenberg says, noting that studies have found that males fall in love more easily and can have a more difficult time falling out of love. “The boys who I see and who get broken up with are the ones who get the most upset,” she notes. Steinberg adds that there’s evidence that “the breakup of a romantic relationship is the most common precipitator of suicide with an adolescent,” but stresses for parents that suicide and murder are not the fallout “in the vast majority of cases.”  

Don’t rely on clichés. “Popularity can actually be a risk factor,” Greenberg warns, noting that such a social status can often be associated with unhappiness and bullying.

Beware mindful about your child’s access to weapons. “There have always been kids who have gotten angry because they were broken up with or because they felt betrayed,” Steinberg says. “It’s the combination of that, plus easy access to lethal weapons, that’s the toxic factor here. You used to just use your hands.” 

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