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Teen Violence Guide for Concerned Adults

If you are concerned about your child possibly committing violence, you need to arrange for your teen to be seen by a qualified mental health professional. Look for a child/family mental health professional who is experienced in working with teens & their families. The goals of treatment focus on helping the teen to learn how to control anger, express anger & frustrations in appropriate ways, be responsible for their actions, accept consequences, address family conflicts, school problems & community issues before their behaviors get worse.

Accounts of the tragic incidents of school shootings repeatedly indicate that in most cases, a troubled youth has demonstrated or has talked to others about problems with bullying and feelings of isolation, anger, depression and frustration.1 While there is no foolproof system for identifying potentially dangerous students who may harm themselves and/or others, this checklist provides a starting point. The behavior checklist below was was derived from tracking school-associated violent deaths starting in 1992 to the present.2 Get help quickly if your child is exhibiting one or more of these warning signs for violence:

  • past violent or aggressive behavior like angry outbursts
  • access to guns or other weapons
  • bringing a weapon to school
  • past suicide attempts or threats
  • family history of violent behavior or suicide attempts
  • blaming others and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for own actions
  • recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss, or rejection
  • bullying or intimidating peers or young children
  • a pattern of threats, “I’m going to kill him” when angry
  • being a victim of abuse or neglect (physical, sexual, or emotional)
  • witnessing abuse or violence in the home
  • themes of death or depression repeatedly evident in conversation, written expressions, reading selections, or artwork
  • preoccupation with themes & acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, magazines, comics, books, video games, & internet sites
  • mental illness, such as depression, mania, or bipolar disorder
  • use of alcohol or illicit drugs
  • disciplinary problems at school or in the community
  • past destruction of property or vandalism
  • cruelty to animals (as early as 6 yrs. old, earliest & most reliable predictors of later violent behavior)
  • fire setting behavior
  • poor peer relationships/social isolation
  • involvement with cults or gangs
  • little or no supervision or support from parents or other caring adult

The greater the number of these warning signs present, the greater the risk, however many children may exhibit these warning signs & never resort to violence. Even so, these signs can be a clue that something is wrong and your adolescent needs help. As a precaution, make sure your teen doesn’t have access to firearms, and remove other dangerous objects from your home. If you own a gun, it must be kept safe, locked, and stored separately from the bullets. Teenagers often act without thinking first, when they are angry or depressed, they are more likely to harm or kill themselves or others (like their bully at school) if they can easily get a gun. It’s best not to have a gun in your home at all with a troubled teenager. With a gun in the home, you are five times more likely to have a suicide in your house than homes without a gun.3 Teens interviewed after committing a lethal school shooting say that revenge is the strongest motivation for acting out violence.4 If in an emergency situation or if your child refuses help, it may be necessary to contact local police for assistance or take the child to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.

Research studies have shown that violent behavior can be decreased or even prevented if the following risk factors are significantly reduced or eliminated: 5

  • being the victim of physical or sexual abuse
  • exposure to violence in the home or community
  • exposure to violence in the media (TV, movies, music)
  • use of drugs or alcohol
  • presence of firearms in home
  • combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (poverty, severe depression, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family)

Most importantly efforts should be directed at dramatically reducing the exposure of teens to violence in the home, community, and the media because violence leads to violence.5 Children who observe violence or are victims of it show more behavior problems than other children according to studies.6 The number of aggressive and violent youth is increasing dramatically. Young murderers (under age 18) in the United States tripled from 1981-1994. How a child is raised early on in their young lives has a lot to do with their level of aggression as a teenager; developmental neglect and traumatic stress during childhood create violent, remorseless children.8

1 Brent E. Turvey. Forensic Victimology: Examining Violent Crime Victims in Investigative and Legal Contexts. Academic Press: 2013. p. 381.
2 Children's Threats: When Are They Serious? American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; c2013.
3 Kellermann AL, Rivara FP, Somes G, et al. Suicide in relation to gun ownership. N Engl J Med 1992; 327: 467–72.
4 Lethal Violence in Schools: A National Study. Alfred University; c2001.
5 Understanding Violent Behavior In Children and Adolescents. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; c2015.
6 Jeffrey L. Edleson. Problems Associated with Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
7 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2004. Juvenile Suicides, 1981 – 1998. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
8 Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. Incubated In Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the 'Cycle of Violence.' The Child Trauma Academy; c2013.

is a Violence Prevention Educator at the YWCA of Niagara Frontier in New York. She graduated from Buffalo State College and loves volunteering in the Niagara County community. Rachel also spearheads the YWCA's Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event.