A teenage longing for belonging?

Adolescent romances, like their adult counterparts, can be the stuff of dreams - or nightmares. But adults have at least one advantage over teenagers: No one is likely to dismiss their romantic feelings as "puppy love" or underestimate the potential for hurt when relationships end.

A youthful broken heart is, in fact, being considered as one of the possible "last-straw" factors precipitating the shooting of six high school students in Conyers, Ga., last Thursday. Thomas Solomon Jr., the 15-year-old accused of the shootings, was reported by friends to be despairing over a breakup with his girlfriend.

In many of the school shootings in recent years, the motives of the gunmen remain complex and inscrutable. But this one is the latest of several in which a suspect was beset by a failed romance, among other problems.

A year ago last week, an 18-year-old honor student in Fayetteville, Tenn., killed a classmate who was reportedly dating his ex-girlfriend. Two months before that, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, fatally shot four girls and a teacher at their middle school in Jonesboro, Ark. Mitchell's girlfriend had broken up with him, and even young Andrew had been rejected by a girl. In 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal killed three students in West Paducah, Ky. One of them was a girl he liked who didn't return his feelings. Two months earlier, Luke Woodham, 16, of Pearl, Miss., who killed his mother and two students, was said to have been "crushed" when a girlfriend broke up with him. She was one of his victims.

Young hearts can also be hurt in other, less obvious ways closer to home. Professionals looking for common denominators in the school shootings note that in several cases, the accused killers had experienced the divorce of their parents and the remarriage of at least one parent. At least two had also relocated with their parents to a distant city.

Six years ago Eric Harris, one of the two high school students involved in the massacre in Littleton, Colo., last month, moved from Plattsburgh, N.Y., to Littleton with his family. Similarly, Mitchell Johnson moved from southern Minnesota to Jonesboro in 1995 when his divorced mother remarried.

In a nation that takes mobility for granted - celebrates it, even - and has come, reluctantly, to accept the pervasiveness of divorce, there is a widespread expectation that children and teenagers will make the necessary adjustments and "get over it." That also includes getting over "puppy love."

Most teenagers do make these adjustments, of course, and in many cases grow stronger in the process. But as parents, teachers, and other adults look for ways to reach out to young people, some see a common thread in the disappointments and isolation students experience when they lose a sense of place, lose a parental figure, or lose a girlfriend.

"They don't feel connected to their parents, their town, and their girlfriends," says Gerald Margolis, a Boston-area psychiatrist who works with teenagers. "They feel alone and want to somehow connect."

Stephen Erickson, a professor of philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., calls this universal yearning for connection "longing for a belonging."

That need for belonging and rootedness also figures in a new book, "Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life." William Leach writes, "A strong sense of place, along with the boundaries that shape it and give it meaning, ... helps to provide people - especially children - with an assurance that they will be protected and not abandoned." It is "indisputable," he says, that children "need a sense of place ... in order to become self-reliant."

That sense of place, whatever a family's specific address, does not develop in a vacuum. The "core treatment," Dr. Margolis says, involves building "a better sense of self, family, and community."

Nathaniel Hawthorne praised the electric connection between human beings and worried about any loss of that connection. He could have been describing the need to help lost teenagers at the millennium.

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