Warning Signs of Youth Violence

Fact, Fiction, or Fad?

Are there children who are “ticking time bombs” ready to explode with violent behavior in our schools and in our communities? Recent high-profile school and other youth violence incidents have lead many to ask, “Are there early warning signs indicating the potential for violent behaviors by youth?,” and many opinions have been offered on the subject.

At National School Safety and Security Services, we believe that there are behavioral indicators which could serve as a “red flag” of a potential for higher-risk of violent youthful incidents.  However, we are concerned about the use, and potential for misuse, of the various “checklists” and similar products being produced in response to this issue. Who makes these checklists and what are their qualifications and perspectives in doing so? Who will use these check-lists and in what context? These and many other issues need to be closely examined when discussing this issue. (For two full chapters on these and other early warning sign and threat management issues, see Ken Trump’s latest book on school crisis preparedness.)

First, Our Concerns…

We strongly believe that an understanding of youth and delinquent psychology can help parents, school officials, and other youth-service providers to better deal with potentially violent youth.  However, the call for increased awareness and recognition of “early warning signs” has generated checklists, profiles, rating scales, and other similar products which could have negative implications.  In particular, we are concerned about:

     1.   Parents, School Officials, and Other Youth-Service Providers as Pseudo-Psychologists. Psychology and counseling are professions which require extensive training, certification, and other professional preparation. Lists of early warning signs and other products need to be viewed within an appropriate context and in a reasonable manner.  A check-list does not automatically make someone an expert in psychology. When a “red flag” pops up, remember to consult with professionals, such as licensed professional psychologists or counselors, when concerns arise.

     2.  Misuse of Early Warning Sign Resources.  Caution should be exercised not to allow such products to be used in a manner to stereotype or classify children, or to overreact or under react to the potential for youth violence. Some schools may have a large number children with characteristics on an “early warning sign” list, yet none of them will commit a violent, tragic act.  Other schools may have children who show none of the characteristics on such a guide, yet one may commit such an offense. Again, lists and other products need to be viewed within an appropriate context and in a reasonable manner.

      3.  Unwarranted Fears That Only “Experts” Can Effectively Work with High-Risk Youth.  Media and public attention to recent incidents may have unintentionally communicated to parents, educators, and others that only highly-trained “experts” can have an impact with high-risk youth. Again, while an understanding and increased training on youth and delinquent behavior can be quite helpful and is encouraged, we also do not want parents or others who work with children to “toss in the towel” because they do not have a degree in abnormal psychology or counseling!  Such a paralysis of adults can only contribute to youth violence, not to help control and prevent it.

It is for these (and other) reasons that the training on Assessing and Managing Student Threats in our school security and crisis preparedness workshop is focused not on a checklist of specific characteristics, but more importantly on the process and questions school officials, law enforcement officers, and other youth-providers should use to evaluate the circumstances of their own  unique cases.  It is also important to consider that the key to intervening prior to a violent incident perhaps should focus less on a checklist of specific behaviors and more on changes in behavior.  And in order to notice a change in behavior, we must first know what that a youth’s normal behavior is like — something that can only be done by knowing our kids.

With those thoughts in mind, we now offer our insights…

What stressors can contribute to young children becoming violent?

A variety of social and economic factors can contribute to violent and aggressive behavior by children at home, in school, and in the community. In cases of workplace violence, we tend to look at the offenders to identify what “stressors” lead them to committing violent acts.  Ironically, we tend not to look at our juvenile population from the same perspective, particularly in terms of thinking about prevention and “early recognition” or warning signs.

Children, especially teens, are influenced by numerous stress factors. Based on our experience of over 15 years work in the school safety and youth violence fields, some of these stressors might include:

  • Physical, psychological, and/or emotional abandonment by parents, adults, and significant others
  • Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and/or other severe family stress or dysfunction
  • Lack of order, structure, and discipline
  • Self-concept formation, peer pressure, need to protect reputation, and related developmental issues
  • Alcohol, drug, and similar influences
  • Gang, cult, or other deviant subculture attraction
  • Pressure to succeed academically
  • Fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, and fear of failure

These and other influences leave our children with an enormous amount of stress and internal conflict which can easily trigger aggressive and violent behavior — all of which is often committed with little or no remorse due to a lack of bonding and connectedness.

Knowing that these pressures exist and that our children, especially our teens, lack adequate and appropriate coping skills for dealing with such stressors, why then are we so surprised that children as young as 11, 12, or 13 are committing such violent acts?  We should assume that we are dealing with a higher-risk population and be appropriately prepared for doing so!

How can parents, school officials, and other concerned adults best help children?

Parents, school officials, and other youth-service providers can take numerous steps to reduce the stressors on children and to reduce the risks of youth violence.  Some of these steps might include:

  • Establishing ongoing, sincere, and trusting relationships with youth built upon regular, quality communications
  • Being sensitive to the stressors influencing children and providing timely intervention support
  • Being alert for, and promptly responding to, issues such as:
    • Detachment:  A lack of bonding and “connectedness” to others
    • Withdrawal or perceptions of hopelessness
    • Threats — and the efforts to establish the means and opportunity to carry out the threats
    • Disciplinary problems in school and/or delinquent, criminal activity in schools or communities
    • Unusual interest or preoccupation with weapons, bombs, and violent forms of “entertainment”
    • Abuse of animals, suicide threats or attempts, self-mutilation, etc.
  • Talk to children honestly and, if necessary, seek professional help BEFORE a crisis!

For additional information on parent strategies, visit our page on frequently asked questions from parents.

For Additional Information on Early Warning Signs…

The U.S. Department of Education released Early Warning, Timely Response:  A Guide to Safe Schools, a publication designed to help educators and other youth-service professionals identify possible indicators warranting concern prior to violent behavior.  Their follow-up publication was released a year later and is entitled Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide.

Other resources include:

American Psychological Association HelpCenter: Warning Signs of Teen Violence

APA & AAP Warning Signs of Violence in Children

For two full chapters on early warning sign and threat management issues, see Ken Trump’s latest book on school crisis preparedness.  And for more information on our school security assessments and school safety and crisis preparedness training, visit our web pages and contact our president, Ken Trump.

Check them out!