After a tragedy like the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, it is normal to have thoughts like, “How could this happen?” or “Were there warning signs that were missed?” or “What could have been done to prevent all this sorrow?” I know I have been asking these questions with my friends, family and coworkers since it happened. This blog, however, isn’t going to attempt to answer those questions — we have news stories detailing the events, and everyone has an opinion on what should be done to prevent events like this in the future. This post is dedicated to those parents who are afraid to speak out, because their question is, “What if the shooter had been my kid?”
We hear frequently from parents, both here on EP and through 1-on-1 Coaching, about kids who have serious mental health concerns, who act out violently toward family and friends, and who make threatening statements about death and violence. These are very real issues that many families face, and our priority is to make sure that everyone is safe. If your child is violent and out of control, this becomes even more important. Your most effective course of action will be to proactively address this behavior if you are genuinely concerned that your child may seriously harm himself or someone else (including you or other family members) rather than trying to talk yourself out of this concern.
As with any instance where you are concerned about safety, we recommend taking this seriously. The best way for parents to do this is to focus on what you do have control over. You do have control over your response to your child. As Kim and Marney point out in their article My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!, if your child is making threatening statements or reacts in a violent, explosive way, we encourage you to plan for how you will respond in a way that ensures everyone’s safety. The police can be a helpful resource in keeping everyone safe, as they are trained to respond to potentially violent or menacing situations. If you are considering calling the police, check out the helpful worksheet in the article How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive.
In the safety plan you develop, talk with your child during a calm time about how you will respond if you are concerned about the well-being of anyone in the house. For example, you might tell your child that if he or she is making violent, threatening statements or gestures, you are going to call the police to make sure he and everyone else is safe. If there are siblings or other vulnerable people in the house, or you are concerned that your child may harm a pet during an outburst, make a separate plan for keeping them safe, too. Additionally, we encourage you to make sure that any potential weapons are placed in a secure location. It is really important that you follow through on your safety plan, whatever that may be, so your child knows what to expect if he continues to act in this way.
We recommend working with other professionals in your area as well to address your child’s threatening behavior. They can be a valuable resource in assisting in the formulation of a safety plan, or other behavior plan. You do not have to do this alone, and it is never too late to start addressing this frightening behavior.
If you are not working with anyone right now to address your child’s threatening behavior, we advise looking into resources in your area. A good place to start is the 211 Helpline, which is designed to connect people with resources in their local communities. You can find them at 211.org or by calling 1-800-273-6222 within the United States. Some other helpful resources are the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) webpage, which offers links to treatment providers, and information about different resources offered by SAMHSA. The treatment locator can also be accessed by calling 1-800-662-HELP(4357). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers a great resource as well, where anyone who feels they are in crisis (whether or not they are suicidal) can call 24/7 and be connected with their local crisis response center where a trained, skilled counselor will listen and offer referrals as needed. The number to call is 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and they have a chat feature on the website as well.
On a final note, as we go forward in the coming days, weeks and months ahead, seek out the support you need to work through the difficult feelings brought about by this tragedy. It’s normal to feel scared, angry, guilty or even embarrassed by your child’s violent behavior. It’s important, however, not to let those feelings impede your efforts to respond to the behavior you are experiencing. It can be very isolating to have a child who appears to be so different in how he responds to life’s stressors, especially as compared to his peers. Give yourself permission to take care of you, and continue to reach out for support, whether it is in your community, among friends and family, or even online through support groups or social media. You are not alone in your struggles, and there are people who care and can help.
Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.