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Disgruntled Kids and School Shootings: Warning Signs to Look For

Every year there are tragedies in which kids shoot and kill classmates and teachers after making threats. When this occurs, everyone asks, "How could this happen?" Most threats made by kids or teens are not carried out – it’s just the youngster's way of talking tough, getting attention, or a reaction to a perceived hurt. But in too many cases, the threats are clear “red flags” for impending tragedy.

Mental health professionals agree that it is very difficult to predict a youngster's future behavior with complete accuracy. However, there are certain indicators that parents and teachers should be on the look-out for. What are the red flags that may indicate a disaster-in-the-making?  

The presence of one or more of the following increases the risk of violent or dangerous behavior:
  • a pattern of threats
  • access to guns or other weapons 
  • being a victim of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect
  • blaming others and being unwilling to accept responsibility for one's own actions 
  • bringing a weapon to school 
  • bullying or intimidating peers or younger kids 
  • cruelty to animals 
  • delinquent behavior
  • disciplinary problems at school or in the community
  • family history of violent behavior or suicide attempts 
  • fire-setting behavior 
  • involvement with cults or gangs 
  • little or no supervision or support from the mom or dad 
  • meltdowns that continue even into adolescence
  • mental illness (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder)
  • past destruction of property or vandalism 
  • past suicide attempts or threats 
  • past violent or aggressive behavior
  • poor peer relationships
  • preoccupation with themes and acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, magazines, comics, books, video games, and Internet sites 
  • recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss, or rejection 
  • social isolation 
  • themes of death or depression repeatedly evident in conversation, written expressions, reading selections, or artwork 
  • uncontrollable angry outbursts
  • use of alcohol or illicit drugs 
  • witnessing abuse or violence in the home

When a youngster makes a serious threat, it should not be dismissed as just idle talk. Moms and dads, educators, and school counselors should immediately talk with the youngster. If it is determined that the youngster is at risk and he refuses to talk, is argumentative, responds defensively, or continues to express violent or dangerous thoughts or plans, arrangements should be made for an immediate evaluation by a mental health professional.

Evaluation of any serious threat must be done in the context of the youngster's past behavior, personality, and current stressors. If the youngster refuses help, it may be necessary to contact local police for assistance. Kids who have made serious threats must be carefully supervised while awaiting professional intervention. Immediate evaluation and appropriate ongoing treatment of kids and teens who make serious threats can reduce the risk of another tragedy.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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The Strong-Willed Out-of-Control Teen

The standard disciplinary techniques that are recommended for “typical” teenagers do not take into account the many issues facing teens with serious behavioral problems. Disrespect, anger, violent rages, self-injury, running away from home, school failure, hanging-out with the wrong crowd, drug abuse, theft, and legal problems are just some of the behaviors that parents of defiant teens will have to learn to control.

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