Embracing the Lost and Disconnected Child

As a country still trying to wrap its head around the tragic loss of life in Florida, I’ve seen many people debating the whys. Why have there been so many school shootings? Why are so many young people willing to kill others? Why did the shooter have access to a gun? We are a country of confusion. Is this a gun control issue? Is it a school safety issue? Is it a community issue or a national issue?

As a social worker, I have been working with teenagers for 12 years, and over that time, I’ve seen a disturbing increase in rageful teenagers. Ones whose anger has caused them to completely disconnect from those around them. These are not simply frustrated or angry kids who don’t know how to express themselves. These are children with a chilling combination: they are furious at the adults around them and they are completely disconnected emotionally from their families.

There is no perceived emotional boundary between them and those around them. As a child, I couldn’t imagine assaulting my parents. I remember being angry at them, but there was an unspoken rule that they were still my parents. That even when I didn’t like them, I still loved them. That the school principal and teachers and adults may have angered me, but they were still valuable human beings (and that they cared about me at some level).

However, I’m starting to see an increase in kids who no longer view adults that way. Ones who are so incredibly angry at the world, that their fury overrides their ability to see others are human beings. I’ve worked with 9, 10 and 11-year-old boys (and sometimes girls) who have assaulted teachers, headbutted school counselors, beat up school nurses, and attacked their parents. I’ve had young children who have bitten, kicked and left bruises and scratches all over their siblings and parents and have no remorse about it. Their anger at the world consumes them.

I don’t believe these are sociopathic children who can’t feel remorse. These are normal children who in better circumstances, those who had a more involved, stable set of caregivers would probably do well. Many are intelligent and have the capacity to love, but their disappointment and resentment has suppressed their remorse to the point that they no longer care about others.

I’ve started calling these the “disconnected children.” The ones who are caught in the middle of highly contentious divorces, with parents who call child protection and the cops on each other constantly. The nine-year-old children who make statements like, “My stupid mother owes my dad $841 a month in child support, and she doesn’t pay him so she doesn’t love me” or “My mom says my dad doesn’t even want me, because if he did, he’d show up for things.”  The children, who starting at a young age, have learned to lie about the opposite parent to teachers, police and social workers to assist their parents in custody cases.

adult, alone, boy
The heart-breaking teenagers who are let down repeatedly by the adults in their life – the dad who doesn’t show up for the scheduled weekend over and over, the mom who is more interested in fighting with dad at the exchange of children than actually seeing her children, the parents who refuse to show up at football or basketball games because the other spouse might be there.

It is the children terrified to connect to adults because their parents have a revolving door of stepparents. I had a young (and very angry) boy tell me that he hated his mom because every time he got close to her boyfriends, she would break up with them and he was stuck grieving that loss. After several rounds of this, he was so bitter towards his mother that he would bite, hit, and kick her when angry. His anger overrode his feelings to the point where he didn’t care if he hurt her. He felt it was a fair payback for the times her actions hurt him.

This is not a condemnation of divorced parents. There are many divorced parents, who even if they can’t stand their ex, try very hard to remain civil. Who cautiously wait to introduce a new boyfriend or girlfriend and manage to work out the kinks in their second marriage to stay together. I’ve seen incredible stepmoms and dads work together and support and love these children.

However, I also see too many families where the children learn over time that anger is the only protective tool they have. Where they fall through the cracks at school because overworked teachers with huge classes don’t have the time to focus on every single child. Where harried school counselors are juggling the needs of 200 of the most “high-needs” children, but can’t help all 1,000 children in the school. Where school psychologists spend their time doing testing, and lack the time to work with every lost and broken child. Where they fall through the cracks at home because their parents are so distracted by their own brokenness and problems, that no one is nurturing and loving them.

The result is heartbreaking. These children push others away, and as their parents retreat because of untreated mental health issues, drug addiction, anger and hurt at their exes or simply too much time on their phone, these children become more lost and more angry. They lack mentors, connection with adults who love them, and the meaningful relationships that remind them of the beauty of human connection.

When you have angry and disconnected children, are we surprised they can walk into a school and shoot their peers (who they view as against them), adults (who they view as untrustworthy and against them) and themselves (who they view as worthless and abandoned)?

So how do we fix this? It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. However, as a community, there are things we can do.

We need to connect with the disconnected children around us. We cannot expect the schools alone to “fix” these children. We as adults, neighbors, church leaders, and parents need to reach out. A program in Portugal found that building community was the best way to “cure” drug addiction, what if the best way to cure rageful, disconnected children and adolescents is the same?

We need to teach our own children to love others. We need to constantly be having conversations with our children. How can they love that angry kid that sits alone in the cafeteria? How do they connect when they sense someone is hurting? It is often our children who see the lost children first, and teaching them how to connect and intervene, and tell us, teachers or principals when they see the warning signs - the angry rants on social media, the whispered words of rage or threats, the rumors of violence.

We need to teach our children empathy. Many of the children I see, both through work and in my personal life, lack empathy. They spend their free time in their rooms, lost in YouTube and hiding from the world, and never have a chance to build empathy and connection with others. Developmentally, teenagers tend to be fairly egocentric, but they do have the capacity to be empathetic. We as adults have a responsibility to teach them those skills, to help them be aware of suffering in others. (We also have to role-model it ourselves!).

We need to support struggling parents. We all have friends going through messy divorces and breakups. Whose marriages are on the rocks. Are we supporting them? Or do we distance ourselves because we don’t want to interfere or get involved in the messiness? I’m so blessed to have mentors and people in my life that can step in when I am frustrated with my children or my spouse, who remind me to stay calm and not say nasty things about my children or other adults when I am angry.  We need to wrap our struggling friends and neighbors in love. To let them vent, to gently remind them to not involve their children in the messiness, to offer tools and mentorship so they can build sustainable, stable relationships with their partners and children.

So many of us watch helplessly at the news footage and feel unsure of where to start. Start by reaching out to the disconnected children in you and your children’s lives. Commit to inviting a kid to church, to go lift weights with you. Commit to spending a few extra minutes asking that awkward kid who lives a few doors down how he is doing. Help support programs like Girls on the Run, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, coaches and youth pastors that mentor those who are struggling. Volunteer at a school so the overworked teachers have more time to focus on the children and not just grading and testing. Help with your local youth group or ask if there are ways you can mentor teens in your church.

We have an obligation to connect with the lost youth in our communities. To support those and the programs who are helping them. To support the foster families in your area, so they can try to love the lost children. Tell your own children (as well as you!) to get off YouTube and serve and connect with those around you.

With repeated school shootings, we can no longer boil this down to an occasional “weird” kid. This is a culture of lost and broken children, and I believe the problem will get worse, not better, meaning these shootings won’t stop. And they need to.

Today, don’t just hug your own children. Hug other people’s children. Connect. Jesus uses the parable of the shepherd searching for and rejoicing over the one found sheep, and we have a culture with many, many lost sheep. Let us search and love on the broken. Love is the answer, but not just for your own little circle. For all the children in our communities.  


  1. This!! This is such a simply approach to LOVING others. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Yes to all of this! As a former youth worker, my first response to what happened Wednesday was to grieve that no one was there in the years beforehand to pull him in and show him love, check up on him, and help him see all the good he was capable of. Community is so important.

  3. This is so heartbreaking, and you’re right—we need to love these kids. Thank you for writing this.