Every year there are tragedies in which children shoot and kill individuals after making
threats. When this occurs, everyone asks themselves, “How could this happen?” and “Why didn’t
we take the threat seriously?”
Most threats made by children or adolescents are not carried out. Many such threats are the
child’s way of talking big or tough, or getting attention. Sometimes these threats are a reaction to
a perceived hurt, rejection, or attack.
What threats should be taken seriously?
- Threats or warnings about hurting or killing someone
- Threats or warnings about hurting or killing oneself
- Threats to run away from home
- Threats to damage or destroy property
Mental health professionals would agree that it is very difficult to predict a child’s future behaviour with complete accuracy. A person’s past behaviour, however, is still one of the best predictors of future behaviour. e.g., a child with a history of violent behaviour is more likely to carry out his/her threats and be violent.
When is there risk associated with threats from children and adolescents?
The presence of one or more of the following increases the risk of violent or dangerous behavior:
- Past violent or aggressive behaviour (including uncontrollable angry outbursts)
- Past suicide attempts or threats
- Family history of violent behaviour or suicide attempts
- Blaming others and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for one’s own actions
- Recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss, or rejection
- Bullying peers or younger children
- Poor peer relationships and/or social isolation
- Being a victim of abuse or neglect (physical, sexual, or emotional)
- Witnessing abuse or violence at home
- Little or no supervision or support from parents or other caring adult
- Disciplinary problems at school or in the community (delinquent behavior)
- Depiction of death or depression repeatedly evident in conversation, written expression reading selections, or drawing
- Preoccupation with acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, magazines, comics, books, video games, and Internet sites
- Mental illness, such as depression, mania, psychosis, or bipolar disorder
- Use of alcohol or illicit drugs
- Cruelty to animals
- Involvement with gangs
- Access to guns or other weapons / bringing a weapon to school
Remedies to deal with such behaviour
- When a child makes a serious threat it should not be dismissed as just idle talk.
- Parents, teachers, or other adults should immediately talk with the child. If it is determined that the child is at risk and the child refuses to talk, is argumentative, responds defensively, or continues to express violent or dangerous thoughts or plans, arrangements should be made for an immediate evaluation by a mental health professional with experience evaluating children and adolescents. Evaluation of any serious threat must be done in the context of the individual child’s past behaviour, personality, and current stressors
- Children who have made serious threats must be carefully supervised
- Immediate evaluation and appropriate ongoing treatment of youngsters who make serious threats can help the troubled child and reduce the risk of tragedy.