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Wide Awake: Angry Children
Struggling to help when you don’t know how

Last summer, Joe, the girls and I took a day trip to visit out-of-state friends who have three small children. Our girls had never met their kids before, and there was a big age difference – our kids were teens, their oldest was 6 – so I didn’t know how the day would unfold. But as it turns out, it was one of the best days of the summer.

We all were especially charmed by that 6-year-old, Max. During a trip to a nearby beach, Max led each of my daughters down to the water and gave them a science lesson on the ocean. He then traveled from blanket to blanket, saying “Hi” to friends he hadn’t made yet. It was natural to like him. He was that kind of kid – the kind who makes you smile when he talks, and he happens to talk a lot.

It was several months later when we found out Max has mental health issues. Some days he becomes a different person. He gets enraged and violent. He says he wants to kill people, sometimes he wants to kill lots of people. He was expelled from first grade at a private school because of his anger issues. This lovely little person who we couldn’t get enough of that summer day has a dark side that none of us can understand or explain.

His parents, especially, are at a loss. Joe and I have known this young couple for about 15 years. They are smart, vibrant and kind. They are like most people you and I know. They’re happy. They hoped to raise happy kids who would have fabulous lives. But it doesn’t seem to be turning out that way, because one of their kids isn’t following the plan. Our friends don’t know why, and they don’t know what to do, but they’re tirelessly trying.

Their new school has connected them with counselors and psychologists. Max now takes medication, although it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. They’ve tried special diets. They control what TV he watches and what games he plays. They’ve exhausted the Internet looking for anything that could shed some light on their problem. As the weeks go by, Max isn’t getting better.

Our friends don’t go out, because they can’t have a babysitter stay with their kids. Several times a week, they have to pick up Max from school because he couldn’t be calmed. They are often embarrassed, because other parents look at them like something must be terribly wrong with them. They are distraught and feel helpless. They love Max. They just don’t know how to help him.

As you can imagine, all of this came racing through my mind when a young man in Connecticut grabbed three guns, killed his mother, then drove to an elementary school and started shooting. There was talk of his mental health issues and how his mother loved and cared for him. It seems she tried to help him but clearly failed.

Caring for an adult with mental health issues is challenging, but when the sufferer is a child, it’s almost impossible. I’m hoping our national conversations soon turn from banning guns to helping the mentally ill. Max is such a great kid, but when you think about what could happen as he grows older, you feel such despair. And that despair is multiplied when you realize no one has figured out how to help him.

Those of us who know Max would never call him a monster, because he isn’t. But what if someday he does something that makes people think he is. What if Max is never helped?

January 2013
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