In light of the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we wanted to confront the fearsome questions no parent or caregiver ever wants to ask:
Is my child troubled?
Does my child show signs of potentially violent behavior?
The truth is it’s a really hard question that’s really easy to avoid. But the stakes are too high not to address it head-on.
It’s important to know you’re not alone in your fears
Very often parents feel isolated or fear criticism if they were to publicly share concerns about their child’s potential for violence or aggression, said Dr. Allan Chrisman, a former co-chair and current member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry‘s Disaster and Trauma Issues Committee.
But you’re not alone. In fact, there are support groups for those with such worries. More on that below.
If you’re still unsure whether you should even be concerned, you might consider the following check list from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
The warning signs for potentially violent behavior include:
- “Intense anger
- Frequent loss of temper or blow-ups
- Extreme irritability
- Extreme impulsiveness
- Becoming easily frustrated”
“I think most parents know their children and they know when they start to get upset whether it’s sort of typical or (not),” Dr. Chrisman said.
So if your kid seems a little off every once in a while, it’s probably fine. But when it becomes a noticeable, lasting change, then it might be time to get help.
Especially if your child is exhibiting one of the above signs coupled with one or more of the below factors.
The factors that increase risk of violent behaviors are:
- “Previous aggressive or violent behavior
- Being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse
- Exposure to violence in the home and/or community
- Being the victim of bullying
- Genetic (family heredity) factors
- Exposure to violence in media (TV, movies, etc.)
- Use of drugs and/or alcohol
- Presence of firearms in home
- Combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (poverty, severe deprivation, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family)
- Brain damage from head injury”
Now for the really scary stuff. Obviously, not every young person who is exhibiting aggressive and/or violent behaviors will actually commit a crime.
But most teens or young adults who are preparing to do so leave a trail of evidence BEFORE their rampage begins. It’s called “leakage,” said Peter Langman, author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators.
“Parents may not be the ones who hear it. They’ll tell their friends or schoolmates, ‘I am going to bring a gun, I am going to kill people.’ Sometimes they’ll warn friends to stay away from school on a specific day,” Langman said. “Often, no matter how explicit (their statements) they often get ignored.”
Parents should seek help immediately if they see any of the following, experts say:
- Interest in or the actual act of killing/torturing animals
- A increasing preoccupation with firearms
- Social media posts, writings, journals that detail intent to commit a homicidal act
- Fascination with or admiration of previous school shooters or attacks
And even if your child ISN’T showing signs of aggressive, troubled behavior, encourage them not to ignore statements made by peers or acquaintances who are.
“They have to speak out,” Langman said.
My kid/someone I know is showing signs of violence or aggression. Now what?
Assuming it’s not an immediate threat (in which case you should call 911), there are some precautionary measures to take, Dr. Chrisman advised.
- Lock up or make inoperative any firearms
- Try to restrict access to sharp instruments, particularly if they are self harming
- Monitor your child – both in person and online – for suspicious activities
Langman notes that some troubled teens and young adults will open up with parents who have kept the lines of communication open, who check-in with them regularly and approach them about concerning behavior or statements in a calm way.
Others, he said, will shut down.
“You might have to essentially spy on them. Check their websites, social media, search their rooms,” Langman said. “Look at what their hiding right there in your own home. Read their journals.”
Use your resources
Without stating the obvious, if you’re capable of taking your child for a psychiatric evaluation, you should. Otherwise…
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is a government-funded resource for families.
SAMHSA offers a free 24/7 hotline all year long (Call: 1-800-662-HELP or 4357).
You can also visit the website (findtreatment.samhsa.gov) for confidential assistance in finding treatment facilities.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness is a fantastic resource that both parents and kids can use. Dr. Chrisman said parents who feel alone in their concerns should use NAMI to find a local support group.
State mental health Hospitals, facilities
Dr. Chrisman and Dr. Cora Breuner, chair for the Committee on Adolescence with the American Academy of Pediatrics, said most state hospitals offer programs and hotline numbers for residents.
In the state of Washington, Dr. Cora Breuner said there is what’s called “Parent Initiated Treatment,” where parents can take their children to mental health facilities for evaluation and treatment.
State social workers
When in doubt, Dr. Breuner said state social workers are some of the best assistants for residents. They can find the best, most appropriate programs and resources for those in need, she said.
An unfortunate truth
Dr. Breuner said there are wonderful resources and programs state-by-state that most people are probably unaware of. Improvements need to be made to the outreach component, she said.
“We know that if we can get the treatment to a child, they’re much more likely to access it than if we’re expecting a child or a family to get somewhere that may be far away.”
But what do I do if my “kid” is an adult?
In the event that you fear for the well-being of your adult child, and he or she refuses to voluntarily seek help or treatment, there are still steps you can take.
The laws vary by state but most have provisions for what is called “involuntary commitment.”
That essentially means by following a certain protocol, you can have police administer a warrant for an adult. Once in custody, that person will be taken to a mental facility for a psychiatric evaluation.
“You’re essentially taking a step to restrict a person’s civil rights to get them to a place for assessment,” Dr. Chrisman said.
So don’t expect the process to be easy – nor is it a long-term fix, said Dr. Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.
Many involuntary holds only last 72 hours. But if it’s truly necessary, then that option is likely available in some way, shape or form in your state.
Call 911 or the police
Of course, if the situation is dire, the quickest solution is to call the authorities.
When you believe someone is immediately threatening others or themselves, it’s important to act quick.
“That’s a hard thing to do — for the parent to call the police on their child — but if you are fearful they are homicidal or suicidal, it might be the best phone call you ever made,” Langman said.
The good news?