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In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School this week, many parents are asking not only how they can keep their children safe from violence, but how they can keep their children from turning violent.

“I asked my 15 year-old son what he thought about the shooting,” a friend told me at lunch today, “and he just said, ‘That guy was angry.’  I asked Brad if he ever gets angry like that—he’s so calm on the outside, you know, so quiet.”

“What did he say?”

“He just said, ‘Sure.’  It’s unnerving to never know what he’s thinking.  How do you know if your own kid has some kind of bottled up rage, you know, or might even have the capacity to hurt other people?”

I didn’t have an answer for him.  We chewed our burgers in silence with the weight of his question hanging between us.

Experts tell us that there is no singular, predictive profile for young people who suddenly turn violent on a massive scale.  Most, in fact, are vaguely discussed in the media with words that describe many teens—“ isolated,”  “bullied,” “depressed,” “quiet,” “smart.”

“There is, unfortunately, no way to predict this kind of behavior,” says Stephanie Roberts, LPC, CAC III, a therapist who assesses high-risk teens in psychiatric facilities.  But what can often be identified, she says, is a young person’s risk for an imminent mental-health crisis.

Roberts urges parents to pay attention to warning signs even if they just seem to be “yellow flags.”  Signs to take seriously include:

  • isolation
  • depression or despondency
  • expressions of anger or vengeance
  • chronic sense of failure and low self-esteem
  • sense of being a victim
  • talk of harm to others or self
  • alcohol or drug use
  • a history of being bullied
  • episodes of suicidal ideation
  • fascination with weapons

“As a psychiatric assessor, I take signs like these as an opportunity for early intervention,” says Roberts.  “We can’t know if violence is brewing, but we can know when something isn’t right—when a young person might need help.”

Since it’s often tragic hindsight that turns yellow flags into red flags, Roberts recommends some form of mental-health assessment at the first sign that something is amiss.   This might consist of a visit to a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or—if the behaviors escalate—a brief hospitalization for the purpose of assessment, stabilization, and treatment planning.

The reality, of course, is that incidents like the tragedy at Sandy Hook are quite rare—a fact belied by the massive media coverage they receive.  But these rare events remind us that for every young person who turns to extreme violence, there are millions of other young people who descend into mental illness more or less undetected.  Many of these young people evade detection because their tendency to isolate makes them invisible, insulating parents and caregivers from the severity of the situation.

I put my burger down, took a sip of water, and looked at my friend.

“So was that the end of your conversation with Brad?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No it wasn’t.  I asked him what he does when he gets mad.”

“What did he say?”

“He said usually he just closes the shades and turns off all the lights in his room, lies down on his bed, and listens to loud music on his IPod.  The louder it is, he says, the more it calms him down.  Is that bad?  Is that a sign?”

“I don’t think so.  The real sign, Mark, is that you guys were able to talk.  You were curious about what he thought and asked questions that he felt comfortable answering.  For a quiet kid like Brad, that was actually a pretty good conversation.  Next time you might even share a little about how you deal with things when you’re mad—both to let him in a little on your own humanness and to discuss some alternate coping strategies.  Music’s not a bad one, but it’s good to have a few different options.”

“Yeah,” said Mark.  “I sometimes forget that just because he’s not volunteering much doesn’t mean I can’t ask.  We just need to keep talking, don’t we?”

“Yup. When that breaks down, then you have a problem.”

“Roger that.”