ViolentKids.Com
HOME || SURVEY || ARTICLES || FACTS || LINKS || KIDS/TEENS || BOOKS

Parents/Teacher's Page
For Parents, Teachers and Other Adults Who Deal with Violent Juveniles:

You have a kid you can't manage, either in your home or in your classroom or you know someone who does. It's frightening because you wonder if this particular child will wind up harming himself/herself or someone else. The following descriptions may include some of the behaviors you are seeing in your problem child. I have broken these behaviors down into two different types. These descriptions are the extremes and many violent children may fall somewhere in between them.

The Type I child I will refer to as the "under-controlled" child. These children are impulsive, irritable and overly responsive to threats (Megargee, 1971). They are revengeful, spiteful, blame others for their mistakes, are oppositional and argue with adults and peers. They seem overly hostile and may even be paranoid--that is, they think others are out to get them. Of course, in some ways, these kids are right. Their behavior becomes a self-fulling prophecy as the more hostile and paranoid they become, the more others are apt to blame them and accuse them of misdeeds, even if they were not the actual perpetrator. In their view, teachers are always blaming them for things they never did. I find a surefire way to identify these types of children is if they refer to their accusers as "they." "They say I was smoking at school. They say I was in a fight with another kid at school." These children rarely accept that they themselves ever did anything wrong. The slightest provocation may set the child off: another child or a sibling may call a name or you may ask them to take out the garbage or help around the house. Next thing you know, this kid has put a hole through the wall or thrown a chair. You may even be afraid of this type of child and wonder if they might harm you or someone close to you.

The Type II kid is a whole different animal. This type of child keeps everything inside and can be referred to as "over-controlled" . This type of child may be anxious and repressed, but very angry (Megargee, 1971). You may never know anything is wrong with this type of child until one day, they blow. These kids never even seemed like a threat. They might be the small bespectacled young man with the beady eyes in your daughter's classroom or your son's chemistry partner. They may not look like a threat, but listen carefully and you will find that they often talk like one. Several of the kids who were involved in the school shootings last year fit this type of description. When Michael Carneal, the fourteen-year-old who opened fire at his Paducah, Kentucky school told classmates he had a gun days before the shooting, no one said anything because they thought, "no way, he doesn't seem like anyone who would do anything like that, because of his personality." Kip Kinkel (the Springfield Oregon school shooter) had classmates who voted him "most likely to start World War III." Yet, no one thought him much of a threat. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

 

    What can you do as a parent or teacher if you think a child is violent or potentially violent? Following are some suggestions that will focus on those kids who have homicidal revengeful feelings towards others or harbor angry feelings towards others that you feel may one day escalate into a tragedy:

Practical Tips for Parents Only:

1) The first thing you must do is to look at your problem child realistically. It's always hard to hear negative feedback from teachers and other adults about your child. Many times I have seen parents who can not accept that anything is "wrong" with their child. Take for example, a case where a school counselor told a boy's parents that he had been writing odd notes about "microwaving gophers to death just to watch them die." This same boy had been observed by the counselor to be rolling around in manure laughing hysterically in the back of the school building. His parent's diagnosis? He was going to be a screen play writer. Unfortunately, this potential Stephen Spielberg ended up in police custody for writing death threats over the Internet for a number of his teachers and other students. So, remember-- take seriously others' concerns about your child, especially if you hear the same one again and again. It might possibly have some validity to it.

2) Many parents see their children's shortcomings as a reflection of themselves or poor parenting skills. Try to frame constructive criticism about your child in a different manner. Here is an opportunity for you to get to know your child better or address a problem behavior before it becomes serious. Try to put your personal feelings aside and focus on what would be best for your child. Remember that your ultimate goal as a parent is to help your child to grow up to live an independent satisfying life. Children cannot go on to do this if 1) they end up in jail and/or 2) they cannot get along with others and/or 3) they do not have the self-control to fulfill their dreams and goals. You are in the best position to help them learn these skills.

3) So the daycare worker (if your child is very young) or a teacher has told you your child is having problems in the classroom. Now what do you do? First, analyze what the problem is and how extreme the behavior is. Is it something simple like he or she is disruptive in class or is it something more serious like hitting others, making threats or even carrying a weapon?

4) Next, determine what you can do and what support you will need to manage your child. If the problem is at school, call a meeting with the school counselor or M-team (multidisciplinary team) if your child is in special education. Listen carefully to what teachers and staff say to you about your child. Try to be as cooperative as possible, even if you feel that what is being said about your child is incorrect or unfair. Bring up your concerns and try to elicit the staff's help. After all, if you become angry and/or belligerent to school staff, the outcome will not be good for your child, no matter what happens next. Stay calm.

5) If the problem is mainly in your home, you need to decide where to turn for help. Determine whether your child fits one of the descriptions mentioned earlier. Is he/she having problems with being under-controlled (impulsive, aggressive, irritable) or over-controlled (repressed, keeps things to himself/herself, internalizes problems, and has fits of anger that are random). You might even keep a record of your child's incidents at home so you will be able to provide a mental health professional with a detailed description.

6) Contact a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist who is recommended by your school or someone whose judgement you trust. You can even go online on your computer to find out about mental health professionals in your state. Many states now require mental health professionals to have their qualifications and specialties posted as well as whether or not they have had malpractice charges against them. For example, the website for healthcare providers in Tennessee is www.state.tn.us/health. Another good source for finding a professional in your area (and getting information on mental health in general) is the American Psychological Association website at www.apa.org. You can also get a referral from your health insurance company, especially if you are in an HMO. They will provide you with qualified professionals in your area who specialize in children and adolescents.

7) If your child is aggressive or depressed, consider removing all dangerous chemicals and guns from your home. I have met many parents who tell me they believe their child is so angry and revengeful that they believe he/she would harm others or themselves with a weapon or concoct a bomb. Some parents say their children even start fires. Yet these same parents will continue to keep guns and dangerous chemicals such as gasoline around the house. I recently talked with one mother whose twelve year-old was unruly and "on the edge." During our session, his mother commented to me, "My son could very well be one of those school-shooters you see on tv one day." Amazingly, this woman and the boy's father were allowing this boy to shoot rifles and even lock them up in the gun safe at night. Naturally, I told her this was a very bad idea. Guns certainly have their place in the hands of a responsible adult or teen, but for a child who is unstable or impulsive, they can result in tragedy. So, if you have a potentially violent child, you must weigh the advantages of having guns or chemicals in your home (e.g. self-protection, need gasoline to run your lawnmower) against the disadvantages (your kid could get their hands on them and harm himself or someone else). If you fear that your child is potentially dangerous, even if it is just a "gut" feeling--remove the dangerous chemicals and guns from your home. Also, remember that children and teens are very good at finding guns that are hidden. I have talked with many young people who tell me that their parents hide guns from them but they usually know where to look. Don't get me wrong; I am not against guns as they are useful tools for sport and self-defense, but only in responsible hands. For more information on gun safety, see www.nra.org.

8) Finally, try to talk with your teen about his/her difficulties or at least be available if she/he wants to talk and really listen. There may be situations and feelings that your child has that you were not even aware of. Of course, talking does not always help. Your child may have extreme emotional problems that need to be addressed. If it seems like more than you can handle, refer to Tip number 6 above.

Practical Tips for Teachers Only:

1) Teachers are usually in the best position to identify kids who later turn out to be violent. I have had numerous teachers tell me " I knew Johnny was aggressive since he started preschool at the age of three." As you are probably aware, good teachers often have a second sense about their students. These kids are usually the ones slapping other children and teachers and throwing temper tantrums in the classroom at an early age. You might even be astonished by the changes in a child's behavior: cold calculating and aggressive behavior towards others one day and then the next day, they are sweet as can be. It can be exasperating. What can you do?

2) Request that your school have in-service programs for teachers specifically for the purpose of identifying the symptoms of at-risk children. Kids may act in ways that we don't expect. For example, many times boys who are depressed will act aggressively by yelling, bullying etc. If you see a child with signs of aggressiveness or one that holds everything in and then blows, talk to the parents or school staff about referring the child to the school psychologist or for a psychiatric evaluation.

3) Teach critical thinking skills: they can prevent violence. There has been research showing that youthful impulsiveness may be linked to younger teenagers' frenetic brain activity in the amygdala, which is primarily linked with emotions and instinctual reactions. Older teens and adults show more activity in the frontal lobe--the brain tissue involve in planning, insight and organization. Teachers can encourage young teen-agers (and younger) to develop the frontal lobe by teaching them to think more rationally (Yergelun-Todd, 1998). This may translate into integrating more critical thinking skills into school curriculums to teach kids more logical ways to solve problems. Paradoxically, school curricula aimed at helping teens get in touch with their emotions may actually make things worse--given the emotional makeup of many troubled teens--while programs that substitute rational thought for emotion may help them deal with their problems constructively. Star Trek's "Mr. Spock" turns out to be right: cool logic is the enemy of hotheaded violence.

4) Set a good example. Use your clout as a teacher to call into question administrative rules in your school that might be leading to misbehavior. These regulations may start out with good intentions, but often create other problems. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is one good example. Many kids with behavioral problems are in special education classes. As you know, because of this, there are restrictions on how many days they can be expelled from school even for very serious and violent acts. Meanwhile, the kid in regular education is expelled for misbehavior of a less serious nature. Zero Tolerance works the same way: Kids who are no threat are often expelled from school for bringing a butter knife or model rocketship--getting the same consequences as the kid found with a gun. What is this teaching children about adults' abilities to think critically? Administrators who cannot distinguish between right and wrong teach children that all acts of misbehavior are identical. This sends the message that you might as well commit a serious crime because you'll get the same punishment. Vocalize these concerns to school administrators or even to your legislators. On a smaller scale, provide students in your classroom with consequences that are comenserate with the misbehavior displayed. Allow your students to see you performing critical thinking in action.

5) If your school does not already have a violence prevention program, talk with administrators about putting one in place. Education is the key in helping students to identify other potentially dangerous students. Several recent school tragedies have been averted by other students telling school officials that someone has a weapon. Get to know your students and establish a trust with them. You might just be the one they turn to if they or their friend is thinking of violence.

Sources: Megargee, E. (1971). The role of inhibition in the assessment and understanding of violence. In J. Singer (Ed.), The Control of Aggression and Violence. New York: Academic Press.

Yergelun-Todd, D. Research reveals potential cause of youthful impulsiveness, APA monitor, August 1998 at page 9.

 

ViolentKids.com
HOME || SURVEY || ARTICLES || FACTS || LINKS || KIDS/TEENS || BOOKS