Dealing with Potentially Lethal Behavior in Adolescents
The following has been excerpted from A Killer in the Family, a copyrighted work by Michael D. Kelleher, Ph.D. It may not be duplicated, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the author.
The First Line of Defense
Despite its weakened structure and the unprecedented issues of extraordinary violence that it now faces, there can be no more
effective defense against future schoolhouse killers than the family of those kids who may be seriously fantasizing about this type of crime, or perhaps even making preliminary plans for their ultimate day of vengeance. It is only at this basic social level that we can truly reach an understanding of our kids and recognize the direction that their lives may be taking, for better or worse. It is only within the strong sense of trust and security of the family that we can truly learn about the experiences that our kids are confronting each day, and help them to survive the rigors and very real dangers of adolescence. This is the crucial environment in which we must educate them, inspire them, and, when it is necessary, turn them around.
We cannot resolve the complex and ultimately very personal issues that drive a few of our kids to random murder by turning our schools into armed fortresses or expecting our overburdened educational system to take on a monitoring and mentoring role that properly belongs in the home. Likewise, our legal and law enforcement systems are not the answer. Their ability to address the
problem of extraordinary teenage crime does not come into play early enough in the developing cycle of violence to prevent
tragedies such as schoolhouse shootings. In the final analysis, each of us must work directly with our kids, from within the family
structure, to ensure that they are not walking the same deadly path as youngsters like Kip Kinkel, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold.
Unfortunately, this is not a simple or quick solution to a problem that already seems to be spinning out of control. As a nation,
we have inadvertently moved away from our own children in many ways, and for many years. This distancing process has been
subtle but inexorable, and it is unlikely that it will change overnight. Sadly, an increasing measure of depersonalization has crept into all of our lives, and has noticeably weakened the foundations of our families. The home is no longer a strong and reliable source of mentoring and guidance as it was in the recent past, and parents are understandably unprepared for the kind of horrific violence that can invade the lives of their kids. Today, we increasingly expect individuals, organizations, and agencies outside the home to fulfill many of the responsibilities that we once accepted as part of the routine role of being a parent. Many of us believe that our educators should take on a larger and more complex role in the lives of our children, yet we do not often work willingly and effectively with them, or sometimes even support their efforts in this area. We look to our law enforcement community to keep an eye on errant and troublesome adolescents, yet they are constrained by a complex system of laws and legal rights that often discourages their personal involvement in the lives of our kids until it is much too late.
Too often, we simply expect our kids to do the right thing, respect and value others, and remain nonviolent throughout their
lives. However, we rarely (if ever) discuss these issues among family members, and when we do, it may be more in the nature of a
criticism than a learning process. We have become less involved in mentoring our kids at a time in our history when they need us
the most, and this failing is beginning to show in their increasingly impersonal and violent behavior toward us.
Perhaps our greatest failing is that we do not provide strong role models for our children—the kind of role models who do not
compromise on issues of morality, honesty, integrity, and nonviolence. For whatever reason, these values are increasingly viewed
as archaic, silly, and outdated. However, lacking these strong role models in their lives makes it easy for any kid to cut corners,
cheat in little ways, accept anger and violence into his or her life, and ultimately learn the ominous and wrongheaded lesson that
other people are simply not that important. The heroes in the lives of our kids are too often dark, angry figures, who exact their own kind of vengeful justice in the most violent ways imaginable. Our boys and young men do not strive to emulate Ghandi or King. Rather, they look up to Rambo and The Terminator. We have left a void of mentoring and morality in their lives, which has been filled by those who market violence as entertainment.
This loosening of family ties and responsibilities is not something that we undertook voluntarily, or even recognized as it was
evolving all around us. For the past few decades, we have lived in an increasingly dynamic, complex, and stressful society that is
undergoing unprecedented change and reshaping our lives every day. It is difficult for many, perhaps most American families to
even secure a comfortable existence without a good deal of personal sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is the family, and especially our kids, who have been most victimized by the contemporary, often frenetic, American lifestyle. Time is more precious today than ever before in our history, yet most families find little of it to spare for those closest to us. In far too many homes, time is stolen away from our kids, even though it is spent in ways that are apparently directed to making their lives more materially rewarding and satisfying. However, what our kids need most is more personal time to communicate, learn, be mentored, and exchange ideas about what it means to be an adolescent in this country, and how best they can emerge into successful adults. Our children need to learn the critical life lessons that can only be taught by the people who care most about them—their parents. Ironically, this basic necessity of mentoring costs very little, except time—the one commodity that we seem unable to offer our kids. One way or another, we must solve this dilemma, and we must do so right away.
There is so much that happens in the lives of our children, and so little that we know about their daily experiences beyond a
superficial level. The honest parent of any teenager will be quick to acknowledge that he or she really doesn’t know much about
what their child encounters every day and how these experiences redirect their lives in small ways. Certainly, it is virtually impossible to comprehend or predict the impact of these experiences in the long term. This lack of awareness seems, on the surface, to be routine and unexceptional for the typical American family. After all, no parent really knows the details of a teenager’s life, and besides, the kid doesn’t want us to know anyway! In fact, this is a myth, and a very dangerous one at that.
It is true that in many cases adolescents are reluctant to communicate openly with their parents, especially about intimate or
highly charged emotional issues. However, this behavior is not some kind of widespread, nefarious plot to keep adults in the dark
about what is going on with their offspring. Kids in this age group are naturally developing new and different relationships with
everyone in their social circle, including their parents. They are undergoing a difficult and intricate process of evaluation that is
designed to ultimately define their role as adults. Everything and everyone is open to question, scrutiny, assessment, and change.
However, this is a dangerous time in their lives and these kids still need their parents, still deeply love them (in most cases), still
listen to their opinions, and still ultimately seek their approval. Teenagers also expect their parents to openly recognize and
acknowledge their evolution into adults, and to communicate with them in ways that are different and more meaningful than when
they were 8 years old. From the teenager’s point of view, the ground rules of life are changing every day, and parents should
understand, respect, and work with, not against, this kind of change.
Unfortunately, this natural progression from adolescence to adulthood is often very threatening to parents, who may feel as
though their child—the center of their lives for so many years—is somehow slipping away from them. In truth, this is not what is
happening. The adolescent is growing up, looking for more meaning in life, searching out a path toward self-definition, and
expecting to give and receive important information in new ways. From the kid’s point of view, his or her parents should understand and cooperate with this natural process. After all, everyone who is a parent went through the same kind of struggle for emergence, even if it happened in a much different, far less threatening social environment.
All too often, from a parent’s point of view, this evolution of an individual from childhood, to adolescence, to young adulthood is confusing, painful and overwhelming. The common result of such divergent perspectives about growing up is that we may find
ourselves standing across the line from our kids, poised and ready to expect the worst, and fearing more for our own feelings than
their experiences. When this family void develops, and perhaps worsens, the first casualty is meaningful, honest communication,
which is the most potent force available to hold the family together. Sadly, as parents, most of us overlook the obvious and direct
cure to these critical emotional issues—giving our kids as much time as they need for honest, caring communication, and
educating ourselves about what is going on in their lives. Instead, we withdraw in pain, confusion, misunderstanding, and perhaps
anger. In effect, we abandon the opportunity to open up new and vital lines of communication with our kids—a tactic that is
especially important for those youngsters who are drawn to any kind of potentially violent or antisocial behavior.
Today, the responsibilities of any parent seem overwhelming, and the problems that they face in raising their kids sometimes
appear insurmountable. However, like any truly worthwhile endeavor in life, parenting embraces good and bad times, and good and
bad news, sometimes on a daily basis. For contemporary parents, the bad news is this: Given the pervasive and misleading
messages of violence that our kids encounter every day, how could they help but accept violence into their lives, at least at some
level? The good news is that we, as parents, can do something about it. We can create an environment in which they learn to view
the genuine horror and destructiveness of violence rather than merely accept its apparent lure of power and pleasure. We can take
the time to understand our kids, participate in their lives, and give them the true knowledge that they need to learn and grow,
including specific information about violence and its potential for ruining lives. We can learn about the warning signs that our kids
exhibit when their lives begin to spin out of control. We can also guard against the possibilities of violence getting out of hand in their lives, and learn how to intervene with a kid who has already committed himself to exceptional violence but has not yet taken the final, fatal step.
We can save lives, starting with our own kids and in our own homes. However, we can only do so if we rewrite the rules that
govern how our family operates, educate ourselves about the complex and often dangerous times in which our kids must evolve into adults, and return to the most fundamental role of each family member—to understand, mentor, and love each other by establishing meaningful and honest communication as the first priority in the home.
The tragic lives of the schoolhouse killers that have been mentioned in this book give us a crude but effective roadmap to
intervention—a way that we can learn to know when it is time to take action and help save a kid who is heading for disaster. Very few youngsters will ever become lethal, and it is ultimately impossible to know which ones will emerge as mass murderers. Thankfully, so far, their numbers are very small. We simply do not know enough about our own human nature to even consider the possibility of predicting this kind of extraordinary behavior. Nonetheless, we can recognize key warning signs that tell us when a kid is in trouble and when he needs immediate and special attention. We can learn to recognize the behavioral signposts that so often mark the path to extraordinary violence.
Knowing and understanding these warning signs of potential violence is a job for parents first, then educators, and ultimately all
adults who pass through the lives of our kids. However, in the end, the process must begin at home, where knowledge, love and
communication can make a real difference. We must avoid placing blame or expecting those outside the home to do our job and
take on our responsibilities to steer our children away from violence. Although it is true that we may need the help of professionals
with our kids, the most fundamental work, which is knowing when trouble may be at hand, must begin within the family environment.
What follows is information that can be the first step toward recognizing when your adolescent may be heading for trouble—the kind of trouble that involves some form of violence. The likelihood that any kid who exhibits these warning signs will become a killer is very slight. Nonetheless, these behavioral and lifestyle signposts, which are so often subtle and easily overlooked, are really pleas for help, understanding, and caring intervention. They tell us that it is time to pay a great deal of attention to our kids, and to do so right away. They tell us that our children desperately need our help, and they also point out what we may be doing wrong before it is too late to do something about it.
Here is an old saw that is both superficially valid and disturbingly misleading: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” It is difficult to argue with the easy, comfortable logic of this statement, but it is also dangerous to accept it at face value. That fact is that guns do kill people, especially when they fall into the hands of an individual who has already psychologically committed himself to murder and is merely awaiting the right opportunity to act out his intentions. The teenage schoolhouse killers in this book all had ready access to weapons, and usually within their own homes. They each had planned to kill their classmates or peers, and they made these plans with clear details and considerable care that involved specific weapons. When these kids were finally ready to strike, the weapons that they needed to carry out their lethal missions were easily available—usually too easily. Regardless of how parents may feel about the right to bear arms and the use of weapons, allowing a teenager easy, unrestricted access to guns is risky business, even in the best of circumstances.
Here are a few questions that parents should ask themselves about the weapons that may be in their homes and readily
available to their kids:
Are these guns easily available and accessible to any family member, or are they unloaded and safely secured in a strong gun
vault to which kids do not have access to the key or combination? Most schoolhouse killers were able to carry off a weapon from
within their own home and use it to murder others. In the case of Mitchell and Johnson, only 13 and 11 years old, the killers were
able to easily steal a number of weapons from their own home and the home of a relative. Michael Carneal did likewise, while Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold illegally purchased at least one weapon with the help of an adult. Nonetheless, the most common
scenario for schoolhouse shooters was to use a weapon that was readily available in their own homes. Had these weapons not
been so easily gathered and used, perhaps more than one of these young killers would have taken a different and much less lethal
course. See the insert entitled, The Kids and Their Weapons.
Are the weapons in the home military style, automatic, or semiautomatic? If so, why? Are these weapons really necessary, or
would a less powerful, less lethal weapon do just as well? Unfortunately, these kinds of powerful weapons have become a part of
contemporary American culture, and sometimes even in ways that are quite subtle. Our kids have gained a disturbing familiarity with these type of weapons through movies, video and computer games, even if they have had limited exposure to the weapons
themselves. Sadly, their primary purpose is to inflict the maximum damage possible on another human being. What is the
message that is being sent to our kids by having these weapons in the home? Are they really necessary, and is having them around
the house worth the risk?
Is your youngster proficient in the use of weapons? Has he been trained in how to use weapons safely? When he uses
weapons, does he always do so with responsible adult supervision? Most of the schoolhouse killers in this book were able to use
their weapons with remarkable freedom, and typically with little or no supervision. Even those kids who were supposedly not
allowed to use their weapons without supervision still had no problem taking and using their guns whenever they felt the urge to do so. The key here is strong, consistent supervision.
If we look back at the kids who attacked their classmates, it becomes clear that most of them had frighteningly easy access to
weapons. Unfortunately, in the majority of these cases, the guns in their environment were automatic or semiautomatic types, which were typically very powerful. It was a simple matter for these young killers to gather one or more guns that they could then use with devastating results. The mere fact that these teenagers could grab one or more of these weapons at a moment’s notice, have all the ammunition they needed available at their fingertips, and begin using the weapons in such a lethal way tells us much about the casual manner in which many American families view guns. These kids, who were obviously psychologically ready and willing to kill, may have not carried out their plans if the weapons that they used were not so readily available. Unfortunately, we will never know. Nonetheless, common sense tells us that ready access to weapons provides an opportunity for murder that a more stringent, careful approach may thwart.
Around the House
There is no environment that can have a more profound impact on the life of a child than the family home. Family dynamics, for
better or worse, shape our kids’ view of the world and themselves, and ultimately define much of their course in life as adults. An
unstable, chaotic, or violent home environment can quickly destroy a youngster’s chances of ever achieving a happy, productive, and nonviolent adult life. However, it is also true that many teenage schoolhouse shooters did not experience an overtly unpleasant or disruptive home life. In fact, for a few of the kids mentioned in this book, the family environment was caring and stable, at least from outward appearances. How, then, do we account for this kind of significant inconsistency in trying to understand why a few of our kids resort to mass murder? How do we know how to create the kind of home environment that minimizes the possibility of
It is relatively easy to understand how a disruptive or violent home environment can contribute to a youngster’s decision to turn
toward violent behavior. There have been endless studies that support the connection between an untoward family environment and
adolescent violence. In fact, this is a theory of behavior that is so widely accepted that it is even recognized in our laws and in how
our judicial system metes out justice. What is so troubling about a few of our schoolhouse shooters is that they did not fit this kind of profile. In fact, there are a few examples in which parents seemed to take extraordinary measures to create an ideal, peaceful family environment, yet their son went on to commit the most atrocious kinds of crimes. Perhaps there is no more troubling example of this confusing scenario than Kip Kinkel. This teenager apparently benefited from a stable, enriching family environment, yet went on to murder his parents and classmates in a 24-hour spree of exceptional violence that was horrifying. Clearly, in cases like this, we must look beyond the family environment for answers.
In the final analysis, we know that a disruptive, chaotic, or violent home environment can be a significant contributor to
adolescent violence. We also know that even an indifferent or uncaring environment that does not include physical violence can
have a similar effect in kids. However, since there are apparent exceptions to this behavioral formula among our schoolhouse
shooters, we also know that we cannot focus exclusively on the family environment. To blame this one aspect of the many dynamics and experiences that impact our children would be foolhardy and simplistic. On the other hand, what we can do is recognize that a positive, involved, and supportive home environment can go a long way to reducing the potential for violence in an otherwise angry, isolated adolescent. The answer to the dilemma is to ensure that the family environment is not a causal factor in any youngster’s decision to act out violently, and the only way to accomplish this is to create a home in which violence is not tolerated and its true message is understood by all family members.
Here are a few points that parents should consider:
Is the child’s home life unusually chaotic, stressful, or unstable? Does the family environment welcome violence into its midst
as a routine part of its daily experiences, even in seemingly harmless ways such as movies and video games? It is also vital to
remember that what an adult may view as mere background noise and harmless arguing among adult family members could be
viewed very differently by an adolescent. Any kind of unresolved strife or ongoing tension in the household will drive a teenager
farther from the center of the family circle and make it more difficult to open lines of communication. Even a passive acceptance of
violence into the family environment can have a terrible impact on kids. Remember that children experience many messages of
violence each day in this country, and their home environment should be as free from these encounters as possible. It is in the
home that violence should be seen and understood for what it is, and not for how it is marketed.
Is there a history of violence among immediate family members, such as a parent or older sibling? Are there any violent role
models in the family home or among close family members? Recall that Barry Loukaitis, one of the earliest schoolhouse shooters,
lived with a parent who was exceptionally violent and who was eventually imprisoned for an armed, quasi-terrorist assault on a local business. This kind of role model could have done nothing to steer Loukaitis away from violence as he entered his teenage years. More likely, the actions of his father provided a sense of acceptance of violence in the adolescent’s mind—a way of resolving rage and retribution that was clearly acceptable to one of the most important individuals in his life.
Is the importance of social fit overemphasized at home or among other adults with whom the youngster comes into regular
contact? The schoolhouse shooters in this book all experienced a great sense of pain and rejection that surrounded the issue of
social fit. They were, by the common definition, misfits among their peers and classmates—kids who were unable to find comfort
among adolescents of their own age regardless of how hard they worked toward acceptance. In a few cases, these youngsters
even stood outside the social boundaries of their own families, unable to compete with a more successful sibling. Social fit is given
a high premium by most Americans, and this is especially true for adolescents. When an adolescent is rejected by his peers or
classmates, perhaps on the basis of something as insurmountable as his physical appearance, it creates a deep sense of hurt
and frustration that can permanently cloud that youngster’s perception of others and the world around him. It is among family
members that this kind of rejection can be eased and put into perspective. However, if the need for social fit drives other members
of the family, especially adults, an adolescent’s sense of rejection will become compounded and even more devastating. For a few
kids, this kind of rejection can lead to violent behavior.
Is your child constantly subjected to unfair comparison with a parent, sibling, or peer that puts undue pressure and stress on
him? Is he forced to compete unnecessarily and repetitively in endeavors at which he does not have an obvious passion or at which
he fails repeatedly? Is the youngster derided for his failures, despite his best efforts? Is he praised for trying his best, even when the results are disappointing? Closely aligned to the issue of social fit, unfairly forcing an adolescent to compete to please a parent, or pushing a kid to vie for attention by pursuing activities that are clearly outside of his abilities, is a formula for disaster. Constantly comparing a child to a more successful individual, such as an older sibling, does nothing but exacerbate the youngster’s sense of failure and rejection. If a kid cannot be accepted for who his is within the sanctity of the family, is there any reason to expect him to cherish, respect, and honor those outside the family circle?
Is there an accepting, passive, or permissive view about violent entertainment in the family home? Do you allow your kids to
watch violent movies, videos, or play violent computer games without questioning the impact of this kind of activity? What about the use of the Internet? Are these kinds of leisure activities carefully monitored so that violent messages and themes are minimized, or is this kind of violence freely allowed into the family environment? Look back at the cases cited earlier in this book and it will become clear that our recent cadre of schoolhouse shooters were inundated with messages of violence that seemed to run rampant
through their lives. Although these messages were most often disguised as harmless entertainment, they obviously had a profound
impact on the young killers, as several of the kids later admitted. This is the kind of desensitization that can have horrific results if it is allowed to continue. As parents, we must all become more aware of the potentially devastating impact that even a subtle
acceptance of violence can have in the lives of our kids. Then, we must do something proactive about eliminating these messages
from the family environment.
Picking Up the Signals
Most parents quickly learn that there is nothing simple or straightforward about their child, especially if he is a teenager. These
years are difficult and trying for all family members, filled with new and sometimes ominous experiences that seem to endlessly
reverberate between adolescents and all adults, including parents. The child that was once so open and caring seems to have
suddenly developed into the adolescent who is withdrawn, secretive, sometimes argumentative, and rapidly changing in ways that
often confuse adults. This is a time of intense learning for our children, and much of what is learned is painful and difficult.
Communication suffers in the adolescent years, and parents are often hurt and frustrated by their inability to get through to their own flesh and blood. However, get through they must, for the risks of letting a teenager work out his own path to adulthood can be
For most families, there is a natural bond between parents and their kids that eventually transcends all the trials of the teenage
years. However, it is also not uncommon for parents to begin to draw away from their teenagers out of frustration and emotional
pain during this stressful and confusing period. It is difficult to keep trying to communicate with a kid who seems indifferent to what his parents value so deeply. However, in truth, teenagers are anything but indifferent. They care very deeply about what their parents think and feel. Nonetheless, they are also struggling with their own emerging personalities and formative worldview. They are working toward a role for themselves that will set the course of the rest of their lives, and this is serious business. Teenagers want to learn from their parents, and love their parents, but they also want to be individuals, first and foremost. Sometimes, this natural growth process boils down to a struggle for control between an adolescent and his parents, and healthy, meaningful
communication is usually the first casualty.
All teenagers go through hard times. Thankfully, most emerge as successful adults. During the difficult, sometimes adversarial
years of adolescence, it is critical that parents stay in especially close contact with their kids and clearly understand the messages
that they are sending. Looking back at the schoolhouse killers in this book, it becomes clear that most of these kids (if not all of
them) sent repeated behavioral warning signs that they were in emotional trouble. Unfortunately, the adults in their lives, including
their parents, were typically confused by these signals, and uncertain about their meaning. It is a difficult thing to try to separate
exuberant teenager braggadocio from a series of threats that mean much more. In the final analysis, it is impossible to know with
certainty which kids will take this kind of behavior to murder and beyond. However, what we can do is learn from those kids who
acted out in a lethal way. They gave us a list of behavioral warning signs that was consistent and persistent. Should our own kids
begin to give out these same signals, would that not indicate that some kind of immediate and effective intervention is needed?
Is your child fascinated or obsessed with reports of schoolhouse killers or incidents of mass murder in the workplace? Does he
collect articles about these crimes, surf the Internet about them, or follow these stories in the media with more than the average
enthusiasm? It is natural and healthy for kids to be interested in these kinds of crimes, and perhaps fearful for their own safety.
Answering their questions and discussing the issues are vital to balancing media reports about schoolhouse shooters and
workplace killers. However, when a child’s interest goes beyond a healthy curiosity to know and understand the issue, there may be a developing potential for violence that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, as we know from the spate of schoolhouse murders
that occurred at the end of the century, more than one of these young killers viewed their predecessors as mythical, dark heroes
whose crimes garnered the massive attention that they secretly craved. In this sense, there is much to be said about the “copycat
effect” and its role in schoolhouse massacres. Sadly, we should have already learned this lesson from the seemingly endless
string of workplace massacres that plagued our country for a decade beginning in 1986. Unfortunately, we have not yet learned it
well enough to put an end to the bloodshed.
Is your child socially isolated or perhaps the victim of verbal (and even physical abuse) from his peers? In every significant
schoolhouse assault that took place in the last decade of the twentieth century, the young assailant was socially isolated from his
peers, enraged, and frustrated with the pain of rejection. These were all kids who stood on the outside of their social group and
could do little to change the situation. In most cases, they were relentlessly picked on, taunted, bullied, and sometimes physically
abused. In turn, a few of them began to bully younger or smaller kids. Within the environment of their schools, social fit was
everything to these kids, and they were not even close to attaining the acceptance that they needed to remain psychologically
healthy. This kind of relentless pain and persecution became intolerable for the schoolhouse shooters, and in large measure
contributed to their ultimate violence. If a child is faced with this kind of isolation, it should be obvious to even remotely attentive
parents. A healthy youngster will have a wide range of friends, even though it is typical for kids at this age to have a single “best
friend.” If parents see that their child is socially isolated, bullied (or a bully), or made the point of persistent taunting, it is well past
time to work with the kid to get to the root of his pain and frustration. Once again, this is a kind of warning sign that cannot be ignored or dismissed as merely another experience in the sometimes painful process of growing up. All parents, and certainly all educators, understand that teenagers can be especially cruel to each other, and often for little or no reason. Nonetheless, a kid who has faced insurmountable rejection and taunting from his peers is a kid who is deeply hurt and may become violent, despite his apparent outward indifference to social isolation.
Is your youngster fascinated or obsessed with games that involve violent themes, or violent books, movies, and videos? This is
a central theme that has repeated itself over and over again in the lives of those kids who strived toward mass murder. It is also a
behavioral characteristic that is closely linked with workplace mass murderers since the mid-1980s (typically expressed as an
obsession with weapons or paramilitary themes). It is a clear warning sign that the individual is pondering some kind of violent
activity—a warning sign that should never be discounted.
Is your youngster fascinated or obsessed with bomb making or the fabrication of other destructive weapons? Kip Kinkel, Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold were not only fascinated with homemade bombs, but also managed to educate themselves in how to
create these weapons and use them. By surfing the Internet and collecting books and magazines on the subject, these kids
developed a remarkable proficiency in bomb making. How could a responsible parent not be concerned about what is going on in
the life of their child when he is educating himself in the ways of a terrorist? To say, “I didn’t know,” is not the answer of a truly caring, responsible parent.
Does your youngster abuse animals? Is he cruel and abusive to younger, weaker kids? Kip Kinkel bragged about maiming and
killing animals, but no one made the connection between this kind of ominous behavior and his later shooting spree. Nonetheless,
animal abuse is linked to all kinds of sadistic and violent behavior and should never be ignored or discounted. This kind of behavior is ominous and has long been associated with later adult violence. It should never be considered “a phase” or given anything less than very serious attention.
Has there been an escalating pattern of violent behavior over the past few weeks or months? Has your youngster been involved
in physical altercations that have increased in frequency or intensity? Has there been talk about acting violently? Every kid in this
book showed some kind of escalating behavior during the period preceding his shooting spree. Some of this behavior was blatant,
while some was less obvious. Nonetheless, it was there, although unrecognized for its true meaning. When these kids finally acted
out, it was not on the spur of the moment. Their assaults were planned, carefully considered, and often worked out in great detail.
Throughout this planning process, their anger was escalating and their words were becoming more threatening. These were clear
verbal warning signs that something was going very wrong in their lives. Sadly, these escalating messages were ignored.
Is your child depressed? The vast majority of teenagers and adults who suffer from depression are not violent to others,
although they frequently harbor thoughts and fantasies of suicide. However, it is also true that the majority of mass murderers, both teenagers and adults, did suffer from depression for some time before they acted out. Since this is such a pervasive disease, yet one that still seems to be clouded by a needless social stigma that will not go away, it only makes sense to learn how to recognize the signs of depression and intervene with any adolescent who is suffering from this common, usually controllable disorder.
Does your adolescent show any other signs of mental illness or psychological problems? Is his behavior erratic, unpredictable,
or anti-social? This is certainly a difficult question for any parent to address objectively. Moreover, correctly identifying and dealing with a psychological illness is something that most professionals often face with great difficulty and sometimes questionable success. Nonetheless, parents know their children in an intimate way that cannot be matched by anyone outside the family. If there is even a hint of psychological problems with any child, it is time to seek professional help without delay. The best place to start is with the family physician, who can help guide and support all members of the household, depending upon the severity of the problem. The worst possible decision is to ignore or deny growing signs of a psychological illness—a certain guarantee that matters can only get worse, not better, if left on their own.
Does your youngster openly and flagrantly disregard the rights of others? By strict definition, teenagers are not considered
sociopaths by the medical profession until they reach the age of 18. However, although few in number, from time to time a child or
teenager will seem hell-bent on violating the rights of others, regardless of the cost. Such a kid will be appear to be obsessed with
doing the wrong thing and will focus his behavior on deliberately hurting others. This kind of behavior is much more common in
boys than girls. If a child or youngster demonstrates this kind of troubling behavior, get professional medical help immediately.
Routinely and uncaringly disregarding the rights and safety of others can be an indicator of a significant psychological disorder than can quickly spin out of control with devastating results.
Is your child fascinated or obsessed with violent historical figures? Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were obsessed with Adolph
Hitler and other leading Nazi figures of the mid-twentieth century. They collected and wore Nazi paraphernalia, and were fascinated with all things German. More than a few adult workplace mass murderers shared similar obsessions. This kind of fixation on a dark, violent hero figure is a dangerous sign under any circumstances, but especially among those who can find no stronger or more influential role models in their lives. When a kid develops this kind of obsession, it will be evident among the memorabilia in his room, in his dress, in the music that he chooses, and in his favorite movies and videos. In other words, there will be little subtly to the depth of the fascination, and only the most remote parent would miss all the clues. These are clear warning signs of potential violence that should never be ignored and should be the focal point of open, caring communication. To assume that this kind of thing is just a passing fancy that will soon disappear can prove to be a tragic miscalculation.
Is your youngster a member of a group that espouses racial superiority or other forms of potentially violent elitism? We know
that the kids who went on to murder their classmates and peers all felt socially isolated, rejected, and abandoned. They also
developed feelings of superiority, anger, and rage in an effort to overcome their profound sense of separateness. This is a
potentially lethal combination of psychological forces that can easily lead to violence because it is founded on separatism and
hatred as a cornerstone of acceptance. The beliefs and actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School provide ample evidence of where this kind of ominous activity can lead. Any indication that an adolescent is involved in a group that espouses separatism and preaches hatred is serious business that can result in exceptional violence. The best antidote for this
kind of pernicious view of others is a home environment that will not allow it to grow and that fosters an uncompromising respect for others as a primary rule of behavior. Unfortunately, America is rife with adults who subscribe to some form of hatred based on race, sexual orientation, or any number of other factors have nothing to do with the true worth of an individual. If this is the environment in which a child is raised, even if the actuation of this kind of philosophy is subtle and seemingly harmless, the stage is being set for potentially mindless and extreme violence.
Has your child openly expressed violent intentions on several occasions, and have these comments grown more specific and
detailed? Has this kind of verbalization increased in recent months? The schoolhouse shooters outlined in this book all gave verbal
warning signs of their intentions to do violence. In fact, they each repeated these warnings over and over again, often in very specific ways. Incredibly, their words generally fell on deaf ears. The adults who heard their warnings chose to believe that this was the kind of behavior that held little potential for real violence. It was interpreted as braggadocio and nothing more. However, when the killers’ peers and classmates were interviewed following these tragedies, they claimed that the repeated warnings that they heard were serious and frightening. It is an easy thing to ascribe this kind of adolescent interpretation of another individual’s behavior to an after-the-fact analysis of a terrible tragedy. However, watching and listening to the young survivors of schoolhouse assaults tell their stories leaves one with the distinct impression that they did believe the words of their enraged classmate—that they did have a
fundamental and accurate understanding that the threats they heard had a good chance of coming true. This same phenomenon
was experienced by adults beginning in the mid-1980s when a number of American men suddenly began to attack their workplaces and claim lives in random shooting sprees. In many cases, perhaps most, the shooter’s coworkers had long feared the assailant and had long believed that the individual would attack the workplace with indifference and viciousness. In many cases, these coworkers spoke openly about the possibilities of workplace violence, and even informed their supervisors, yet no one took the necessary steps to protect the work environment. Are we now witnessing the same kind of denial in relation to teenage
schoolhouse shooters who attack their peers in a random fashion? It seems likely. Clearly, the answer to this problem is to always
take threats seriously, regardless of how innocuous or unbelievable they may sound. To do anything less is to open the
schoolhouse door to the kind of mayhem that has been discussed in this book.
Has your youngster committed his violent fantasies to writing, or perhaps even published them on a website? Does he maintain
a journal or diary that contains these kinds of violent themes? Many schoolhouse shooters kept notes, diaries, writings, and even
prose and poems that expressed their violent intentions, often in very specific detail. In some cases, these writings were known to
the kids’ teachers and even read aloud in class. In most cases, this material was shared with at least one other adolescent before
the shooter launched his attack. One can only wonder whether or not the parents of these kids were aware of their ominous writings and penned threats? Certainly, at least some adults had knowledge of this material. When any individual commits these kinds of thoughts and fantasies to writing, he takes the seriousness of his intentions to a new and more worrisome level. Verbal threats, particularly if they are repeated and detailed, are certainly serious. When these kinds of threats or fantasies are committed to writing, they are even more ominous. When they are distributed to a wide and anonymous audience through a medium such as the Internet, as happened in the case of Harris and Klebold, this material cannot be considered anything less than a specific plan of action that has already been formulated in the writer’s thoughts.