Let me begin by saying that there is no way to reliably predict violence. Although we often identify risk factors after the fact, those risk factors are not absolute causes, meaning that they exist in many people who never become violent. It’s when risk factors add up that we can begin to see better predictability.
Having said that, here are some guidelines.
If you are a parent or a child’s caregiver, ask yourself how many of these risk factors you see in any child. These risk factors are not your fault, but it is still your responsibility to respond to them as best as you can:
- Does the child have a diagnosed disability or disorder which affects their social functioning?
- Has the child been diagnosed with a mental illness?
- Is the child able to make friends, and able to establish relationships with others (apart from yourself)?
- Do the siblings interact abusively towards each other? Fighting and quarreling, interspersed with getting along, are normal among sibs. Constant, bitter enmity isn’t.
- Does the child have a problem with drugs or alcohol?
- Has the child had a history of aggression or bullying, even if you feel that it’s the result of self-defense, or it was provoked? Was the child a target of bullying?
- Has a person with psychological training (a school counselor, the pediatrician) recommended treatment for the child?
- Does the child have an excessive fascination with guns or violence? (Playing with violent video games particularly impacts children with other risk factors; it does not impact all players equally.)
There’s no hard and fast cut-off, but the more of these risk factors a child exhibits, the more attention this child needs. Actions that can be taken:
- Get help. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor. Get your child in therapy. Do not worry about what others will think. Don’t “wait and see” – err on the side of getting help. Therapy doesn’t hurt, even if it turns out you don’t need it.
- Don’t tempt fate. If you have guns or weapons in the house, talk to your pediatrician about your child’s situation and discuss the risk that access to weapons may pose.
- Encourage your child’s strengths – whatever makes them feel more connected or more successful. Popularity in school isn’t everything. If they have a hobby or friends outside of school, pursue these.
General rule of thumb: with more challenging children, or with any child in a more challenging situation, get as many opinions as you can. Don’t try to judge risk alone. See if there’s a consensus; see if there’s a different way to do something. Don’t worry if you need to change course. We’re all parenting by feeling our way around in the dark.
For the rest of us, here’s the easy part: parents today feel more judged, and thus more defensive, then I’ve ever seen them. Let’s make parenting a joint venture, and support each other in our common challenge, rather than judging and competing with each other. I’ll start. My children are definitely not perfect. They aren’t wildly talented, or brilliant at school, or the most beautiful, or the most popular. Every now and then they do something amazing, but generally they’re just typical kids. They do dumb things sometimes (so do I, for that matter). Probably at times they’ve been mean to others, although I don’t imagine they would talk to me about that (knowing how mad that would make me). I accept that they will not appear to be as magical and fascinating to other people as they seem to me. That’s ok. Talking with other parents when I’m faced with a “situation” has always been the most helpful action.
Here’s the hard part: even if we all help and support each other, and even if every child in America who needs help gets exactly what they need, and even if we pass sensible gun control laws (even modest ones – say, regulating guns as we regulate cars), we cannot, 100%, guarantee that shootings (like yesterday’s horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut) will stop. What we can do is make them much less likely to happen.
According to The Nation, the United States had the dubious honor of hosting 16 mass shootings in 2012. Enough.