Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Teen Violence: What You Should Know

Q. I am a school teacher and I have been watching the news coverage about the recent Ohio school shooting. It feels like it could happen anywhere. What should I do to stop this from happening? Are there any warning signs I can watch out for?

A. It is very scary to sit and watch the images of school shootings on your television. It makes us all hug our kids a little tighter, but also makes us wonder what could have been done to prevent something like that from happening. As a parent, teacher, minister, or caring adult, we want to know what to do to protect children that we care about.

If you are curious what warning signs to watch out for, the National Institute of Justice teamed up with the Secret Service to help prevent school shootings. In their report they found there is no common profile of a school shooter*. Therefore, it is more important to look at behaviors and what the teen is communicating through these behaviors rather than looking only at the personality or character traits of that teen. There is no typical personality trait list that fits all violent teenagers. You really want to watch for a major change in behavior that is out of character for that teen.

The National School Safety and School Services list the following issues for teens that adults should be respond to:

  • Detachment: A lack of bonding and "connectedness" to others
  • Withdrawal or perceptions of hopelessness
  • Threats --- and the efforts to establish the means and opportunity to carry out the threats
  • Disciplinary problems in school and/or delinquent, criminal activity in schools or communities
  • Unusual interest or preoccupation with weapons, bombs, and violent forms of "entertainment"
  • Abuse of animals, suicide threats or attempts, self-mutilation, etc.**
Being present in a child's life can also make all the difference in the world. Try having open, honest communication with children you feel might fit this criteria above. Most kids need to know that an adult cares about them and really cares about what stressors are present in their life. This could be the early intervention that prevents them from acting out. If you are concerned about a particular teen, talk to them openly and honestly about what you are thinking. If they are struggling, you can then help direct them to appropriate referral sources such as ministers, school counselors or a professional counselor.

For more information, you can also check out this handout about "Early Warning, Timely Response". It has many great resources and action plans available to you for free.

Parents can also play a crucial role in violence prevention. The National School Safety and Security Services list these idea that parents can employ to reduce the risk to their child:
  • Talk with children early and regularly about gangs, drugs, weapons, school and community safety, and related concerns.
  • When you talk with children, BE HONEST! Violence and related trauma issues are serious, but more damage can be done by minimizing or exaggerating points than by simply providing children with facts and telling the truth.
  • Do NOT assume that your child knows even the "basic" facts about safety and other risks. Kids absorb a lot of information and, unfortunately, much of it is inaccurate or from questionable sources. Let your child get all of the information - the correct information - from you as the parent. And give it to them in a non-threatening and non-embarrassing time, place, and manner. Perhaps then your child will be more willing to come to you with other questions and problems later on!
  • Eliminate access to weapons by youth.
  • Be aware of and do not permit gang identifiers.
  • Provide order, structure, and consistent discipline in the home.
  • Work cooperatively with police and school officials.
  • Seek professional assistance when needed and in a timely manner. Do NOT wait until a problem gets out of control and then look for professional help
  • Parents must provide order, structure and consistent discipline. Although you love your child, realize that he or she is still a kid and will test the limits. Ask probing questions: Where are you going? Who will be with you? And do some follow-up to verify the answers they give you!
  • Inspect your child's room from time to time. Parents have found gang graffiti on bedroom walls, drug paraphernalia on dresser tops, sexually explicit notes, weapons in book bags leaving the home, graffiti and revealing information on school notebooks, and much, much more once they get up the nerve to start snooping! Unfortunately, some parents falsely believe that they should not- or legally cannot - go into their child's room. It is your house and your child - check them both and check them regularly! It is not only your right, but your responsibility!!! ***
There is no one issue or no one thing that we can eliminate from teenage culture to stop these acts from happening, but we can be on the look out and we can be involved in kids lives. It might just be that involvement that helps a teenager realize there is another option other than violence.

* Information taken from:
** Information taken from:
*** Information taken from:

*This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.
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