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The Informed Parent

Warning Signs of Violence

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Aug. 02, 1999


West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado; Conyers, Georgia. Words that strike fear--no, stark terror--into the hearts of parents and teens alike. How could it happen? Why is it happening so often? How could parents be so seemingly unaware of the rampage in their child's mind and soul? The mother of one of the Littleton murderers reportedly informed her hairdresser that she was every bit as shocked as the rest of the nation that her child could create such mayhem. Part of me recoils at that notion; part of me accepts it as at least possible, even probable. How intimately parents know their teens has become increasingly suspect in our cyberspace society.

Much has (thankfully) been written about what has gone wrong in a society which seems to breed such violence. I believe firmly, if somewhat optimistically, that we will see significant changes in our lifetime which will mitigate against our acceptance of violence as part and parcel of our children's educational experience. Programs to discourage and even eradicate bullying and scapegoating are becoming more commonplace. Entire states are beginning to entertain the idea of smaller schools, i.e., schools where virtually every student can gain a "place", an identity. More and more early intervention programs for those considered "at risk" for violence (even for 5-year-old "bullies") are being formulated and implemented. Finally, informed parents are gaining a greater knowledge base for evaluating their children's mental health, as well as their propensity toward violent behaviors.

It is to this latter issue--parents' ability to spot the warning signs in their teens' behaviors which will enable them to help--that this article addresses itself.

The Warning Signs Of Violence

1. Depression

Depression is harder to spot in teens than in adults. Teens are expected, developmentally, to be moodier. They are supposed to look more emotionally fluid, or elastic, than adults. For example, your teen may look absolutely devastated, even clinically depressed, after the break up with a "first love" or the death of a beloved pet. But days later, the same kid is out and having fun again. Finally, teens are far less likely to realize that they are depressed, or that they might need professional help. Instead, irritability, acting out behaviors and difficulties with anger control occur. Unable to express himself verbally and in a constructive manner, this teen may be at risk to act out his distress in a violent manner.

Identifying the depressed teen is sometimes as difficult for a professional as it is for his parent. Finding out whether a teen has lost motivation and concentration (a major hallmark for depression) is much harder, for example, than it is when evaluating an adult. Instead of asking a direct question, the psychologist looking for depression might query the teen as to whether he is still having fun in baseball, or whether it is taking longer than usual to complete his homework. Instead of asking whether a teen cries a lot (unlikely to be acknowledged, especially by a boy), the psychologist may ask whether he feels like crying more than usual. Collateral reports from parents ("has your son lost interest in grooming and appearance?") and teachers ("is he still alert and participatory, or has he lost a little of his sparkle?") are often critical in arriving at a diagnosis of depression.

If this isn't difficult enough, there are often complicating factors. There are many depressed kids out there who were diagnosed, initially, with learning disabilities, or ADHD. In some cases, these conditions, and their accompanying sense of isolation and alienation from peers, may trigger depression. In others, an underlying depression may be aggravated by learning difficulties. And, in a circular and frustrating manner, depression may interfere with learning, and may even precipitate the onset of antisocial behavior. All of the contributing factors to a teen's troubling behaviors must be ferreted out, and treated appropriately.

The key point for informed parents is to remember that they must be alert and responsive to drastic changes in their teen's behavior. Here are the "red flags" which may signify the onset of depression in your teen:

(a) Problems at school: These may be academic problems (drop in grades; reports from teacher of incomplete projects or failure to turn in homework) or they may be behavioral (disruptive in the classroom; fighting on the playground.)

(b) Changes in physical activity: Your normally energetic teen seems listless, lethargic, or as
though he is barely able to drag himself about to complete his regular activities.

(c) Relationship problems: Your teen seems to lose or reject his friends. He may also refuse
to participate in family and school events which he previously enjoyed.

(d) Self-destructive behaviors: Boys may, for example, begin to bite their fingernails, to the point of bleeding. Girls may cut themselves with razor blades or knives, often on areas which may be covered. i.e., by shirtsleeves.

(e) Sleep pattern changes: Your teen may develop insomnia-like behaviors; or alternately, may
sleep to excess and be difficult to awaken.

(f) Self-esteem changes: Your teen may express his belief that everyone (parents, other family members, friends and teachers) disapproves of or even intensely dislikes him.

(g) Suicidal or morbid thoughts: Your teen develops an interest in music, art, games or books
that focus on death, or death and destruction themes.

2. History of Violent and/or Aggressive Behavior:

Early signs include cruelty to animals or fire setting. Research suggests that the child who demonstrates such behaviors prior to age 12 is more at risk for the later development of increasingly anti-social or violent behaviors.

On a lesser but nonetheless important level is the child who demonstrates a pattern of bullying at an earlier age--the child who chronically hits, bits and intimidates others. If these seemingly more minor behaviors are not addressed early and aggressively by caretakers and the schools, they may escalate later into far more serious problems. Some progressive states and schools are now attempting to identify such children as early as age 4 or 5, and to take appropriate steps to modify their potentially dangerous behavior patterns.

3. Anger:

The child or teen who expresses intense anger at seemingly minor incidents or irritants may signal the potential for violent behavior. (This is not the teen who occasionally seems out of sorts or
irritated at minor incidents or disagreements with others, but the teen who is explosive in response to those same "triggers".)

4. Feelings of Persecution:

The teen who feels constantly picked on or bullied by others, is, in some cases, just as much at risk as the bully. Over time, this teen may withdraw, both at home and school, and may begin to entertain fantasies of revenge. (This is not the teen who is the occasional object of ridicule by classmates or friends, but the teen who feels constantly singled out for humiliation.)

5. History of Discipline Problems:

A long history of discipline problems, i.e., initially with parents, later with caregivers and school personnel, often suggests that a child's emotional needs are not being met. Without intervention, this child may later disengage himself from school and other authority figures, and is at increasing risk to behave antisocially.

6. Intolerance:

Children and teens who demonstrate intense prejudice toward others based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation or ability are more at risk than the average teen for a propensity toward violence. (This is not the teen who demonstrates strong likes and dislikes--it is the teen who demonstrates blatant prejudice.)

7. Drug and Alcohol Use:

Teen use of drugs and alcohol reduces inhibition and self-control, and results in greater probability of the teen's exposure to violence.

8. Affiliation with Gangs:

Gang-affiliated teens are more likely to adopt the values and mores of the gang, and to act in aggressive and violent ways.

9. Access to Firearms:

Children and teens who have a history of aggression, impulsiveness or other emotional difficulties must be denied access to firearms and other weapons.

10. Violence in Writings and Drawings:

Teens today have access to violent imagery that was unthinkable a generation ago. They often produce work (art and writing) with violent themes which is harmless when considered in context. Violence which is directed at specific individuals, however, should not be ignored, nor should you allow your teen to "explain it away". Serious emotional problems and the potential for violence must be inferred when there are specific "targets" contained in the work.

11. Serious Threats of Violence:

Specific threats to commit violence--against oneself or others--must be taken very seriously, and acted upon immediately.

What To Do

If your teen demonstrates the risk factors described above, or if you have suspicions that he may be at risk, reach out! Talk to your teen's teachers or counselor at school; your pediatrician or other physician; your pastor; or your friends who have teens. Spend time with your teen and try to figure out what he is really thinking about, what is bothering him most and perhaps resulting in the behaviors you consider most unnerving or obnoxious. Obtain referrals to mental health professionals recommended by individuals you trust. Most important of all, don't delay! It may seem overwhelming initially, but the moment you begin to address your fear or apprehension, the closer your teen is to obtaining the help he may desperately need.

The most informed, most caring parent cannot protect their teen from all the potential perils of their world, but involved parents can and do make a difference. Teens do listen. Teen drug use (while still high) is declining slowly, and teen pregnancy and birth rates are down slightly. More teens are, by all accounts, delaying sex, and those who do engage are more likely to use contraceptives. All of these changes are attributable, in large measure, to improved education and knowledge. If we can remove the stigma attached to the teen who is angry, depressed or otherwise "different", perhaps we might also begin to stem the flow of violence which threatens our very existence.

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