There is always a surge in calls from schools to parents when a violent event happens in our country - warning them that their child/ teen made a threat to others involving death or destruction.
We also have seen an upswing in referrals regarding sexual abuse concerns - since Jerry Sandusky was able to manipulate so many caring adults into complacency.
I would love to say - it will all 'go away' once the media does. It doesn't. I am very thankful for the professionals caring for our youth, who take threats seriously. Parents may not like the sudden intrusion of mental health professionals - but in the cases I have worked with - they revealed very serious concerns that had been minimized or discounted. In other cases, the fear of the specific threat was the focus rather than the underlying real reason the threat was expressed in the first place.
I will share one case I dealt with - that should encourage parents and professionals to explore more carefully.
This happened during the years of Columbine. A parent, who I had already worked with in the past with her son, called to make an appointment because her teen son had made a threat in a class and the school officials required counseling. The teen had made the snide remark while handing in a Music class test that 'I don't know why this is important -the school isn't going to be here anyway...' . Yes it was vague - but it expressed real hopelessness. I was glad the school did take it seriously. Initially everyone's focus was to 'teach' the dangerous-ness of making this kind of threat - that it in itself was 'bad'.
After 2 sessions I began to question what he was fearful of - (often hidden behind aggressive threats). He went on to describe that he was really scared that his mother would die.
Prior to this school event, he had already lost his father to Opiate addiction and his mother had gone through multiple surgeries and treatments of cancer. At night she would sit at the kitchen table smoking and drinking until she passed out. He was seeing her smoking as fueling her cancer and his larger concern, worry was that how was he going to raise his sister who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. . . he was 15, she was 9. Needless to say we worked together to get the mother to quit smoking, reduce drinking and we had cooperation from the school's football coach - to get him to focus on sports and trust that his mother was taking precautions and following through with the expected treatments. He ended up having a great football experience throughout high school and his mother beat her cancer.
This week I received a call from a mother of a 6 year old who had made the comment to others that she 'wanted to hang like the hangman.'
School officials stepped in and required counseling before being able to return to school.
What we uncovered was that her sadness was the burden of worry she felt because she had been the bystander of a bully. Not bullied herself, she had been a victim in the past but it had been addressed. When she brought it to the attention of a school employee, they dismissed her concern and said what so many say "It's OK, its not your problem.' She understood this as them not caring and not acting to protect the victims. This comment actually made her more vigilant to 'protect' or fear that she couldn't when she could see them - so her distraction level surged and her 'sad' demeanor increased with her sense of powerlessness. I was able to explain to everyone how to interact with her so that she could see evidence that these vulnerable little children were being protected in her absence. Remember she is only 6 - but the responsibility she had taken on was similar to an adult.
I share these examples so parents and professionals attempt to question their children in non-threatening ways so that they can reveal their real fears, concerns and burdens. It is remarkable what our young are managing. We need to stop and look at the world through their level of understanding, vulnerabilities and lack of power.
If your child is making comments that involve inflicting serious harm to themselves or others - please take the time to explore how they are perceiving their world. Stop being afraid as a parent. More often than not these statements are not about mental 'illness' - raising a 'killer' or the absolute path to delinquency. They are cries for help, to listen, to take action and more often than not, to protect others.
Contacting a professional counselor can be very helpful because they can share their burden without adding yet another burden to their parent - who they may already believe is 'too busy' -overwhelmed or distracted to act. The privacy of a counseling session also aids the comfort to reveal their truths. Allow your child/teen that option. Having a safe confidant in a world with so many challenges is often the simplest reason why counseling is helpful.
Never be afraid to ask for help . . .