Warning signs of troubled kids

April 22, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

They dress in black, hurl hostile threats, sulk alone in their bedrooms. Ordinary teens or troubled adolescents comfortable enough seeing gunfire that they plan to try it themselves?

There are warning signs to distinguish kids on the verge of violence from kids going through a stage, experts say. The problem is, some say the country lacks the will to develop systems that would help kids and prevent violence.

"In all these school shootings, there was advance notice," said Howie Knoff, a professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida. "We had an early warning with every one of these cases. [But] we didn't have an early warning system that [responded] effectively."

At least three "lists" of early warning signs that a child may be headed for violence were compiled by national groups after past school shootings, and they all recommend an immediate referral to a doctor for those who threaten to hurt or kill classmates or display weapons. That wasn't done in the Littleton, Colo., case, even though the two boys had talked about using weapons.

With or without lists, no one can predict who will actually become violent.

"I don't have a single list or think there should be," says Harvard professor of psychiatry Lawrence Hartmann, past president of the American Psychiatric Association. "But we should be aware that there are a lot of disgruntled kids in a society that is much too comfortable with violence."

Hartman worries about kids on drugs, kids who suffered from major head injuries, kids who have epilepsy, kids who have experienced major violence and kids who are punished physically and heavily.

The risk of violence is "additive" -- it grows when accompanied by violence in movies, on television and in games, by lack of attention from parents and by what Hartmann calls the scandalous availability of weapons in our society.

"We should not look at it as here are 3 or 4 percent of kids about to explode. We should look at our society's relationship to children," he said. "And it's a very complicated picture."

Street-level warnings include bullying younger children, joining cults that engage in aggressive behavior, a preoccupation with violence, past suicide attempts, cruelty to animals, making multiple threats and blaming others for your own actions, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A teen who lives with abusive parents is also at risk.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois, notes that the boys who killed classmates at Littleton were on a suicide mission. Suicide missions and mass murders are usually carried out by white males, who he says suffer from an entitlement disorder -- they think they own their wives, children, other people and if they are going to commit suicide, they are entitled to take others with them.

The prerequisite for suicide is almost always a major depression, schizophrenia or a history of substance abuse, research shows. Bell has developed a system to identify and help children with such problems; it has been used in Chicago schools for five years. Based on the idea that children need to feel bonded to their community, it calls for:

Establish community partnerships with preachers, police, business people and other adult mentors.

Make health care available so depression and behavior problems can be treated.

Make every school a community center -- provide after-school activities that give them a sense of connectedness and uniqueness, say, chess clubs and ROTC and Little League.

Give children social-skills training so they learn how to communicate.

Identify and de-stress kids exposed to violence; intervene with social workers if necessary.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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