Why Is It So Hard To Connect With “Weird” Kids Like Nikolas Cruz?

And Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told CNN that Cruz had been getting treatment at a mental health clinic for a while, but that he had not been back to the clinic for more than a year. “It wasn’t like there wasn’t concern for him,” Furr told CNN. “We try to keep our eyes out on those kids who aren’t connected. … In this case we didn’t find a way to connect with this kid.”                   – Washington Post 

I have been a professional youth worker for 28 years and connecting with students is what I do. I find a way to connect on the surface (sports, movies, etc.) and find ways beneath the layers to express unconditional love and speak truth, with permission.

Nicholas Cruz was went through the loss of both of his parents before the age of twenty. This is no excuse to kill 17 people, only a reminder that this kid was a walking open wound who sensed life was shaking salt all over him. Violence was his response to whatever he deemed was unfair or unjust about his life.

The report, by all accounts, is that he had a good mom. She supported him , gave to him, and loved him, but she may have been the only one. It’s still early in this tragedy and there will be those who were his friends that may come forward and offer some kind of perspective to the kinds of relationships they had with him.

In addition, after his mother died, he lived with a family who got him a job, drove him to school. and overall supported him. He left that home do to things “not working out”.

The word that I read over and over again in the articles like the Washington Post, in regards to Nicholas’ demeaner, was that he was weird and people struggle with weird or off-putting behavior that does not match social norms. Teens who like anime or cosplay are “weird”, to some, but behavior such as Nicholas’s  love of guns and knives and his infatuation with harming animals etc. is a differ kind of weird.

Disconnected kids, like Nicholas, are nothing new, but many professionals, like Jonathan McKee as well as others, saw what the internet would do to exacerbate this disconnection five years ago.

It seems to me students today are more isolated, have fewer close friends, and are drifting away from activities with personal interaction. This is creating a relational void in their lives. Add this to the growing levels of stress and pain teenagers already face as part of adolescence, and it is no wonder we are seeing an increase in teenage anxiety, depression, violence, and self injury. Teenagers are hurting more than ever before. – Jonathan Mckee 2013, Youth Specialties, Blog Post

“Connecting with students” is a somewhat ambiguous term What does that mean? Does it mean we, adults or youth workers like or approve of everything a kids likes? No, it means we can look past the surface, and our own biases, to what’s happening behind the eyes of a student and seek to engage anyway.

I’ve dealt with my own share of kids who were hard to reach. Some I was successful with and others I was not. Like Jonathan says in his article, it was his face to face interactions with hard to reach kids that made all the difference.

It’s hard to talk to kids about their social idio-syncricies, their lack of hygiene, their awkward interactions with the opposite sex, their fascination with horror movies or violence, but it’s these hard issues that kids need us to talk to them about and affirm that, although these are difficult subjects, we’re having these conversations with them because we love the, and want life to be good for them.

Who looked past the weirdness of Nicholas Cruz and their own discomfort, to have a face to face or a heart to heart with him?  I don’t know. Right now, the news is fixated on his social media accounts and who should be blamed for all of this.

While this is going on, there’s another kids sitting somewhere who needs a face to face, a loving word, an affirmation during their difficult times, and they need someone who doesn’t mind a little discomfort who will risk rejection on behalf of love to reach them.