What can parents and other concerned adults do to prevent the next Sandy Hook? Are there red flags that warn us if our children might become victims or perpetrators of bullying, or of sexual assault? How do we know when a child or young adult is at risk for suicide, or just moody? These are certainly questions most parents have wondered about, especially at a time when childhood dangers seem increasingly hard to predict or control. Warning Signs is the first comprehensive book of its kind, explaining the underlying factors and signs of youth violence and aggression—and how to identify and guard against them. Topics include: violent media influences, bullying, hazardous friendships, sexual aggression and abuse, risky thinking and entitled attitudes, school safety, gun violence, mental health, and more. Doctors Brian Johnson and Laurie Berdahl provide specific, practical ideas, strategies, and tips based on current research and years of clinical experience. They even suggest language parents can use during tough conversations with their kids—or with another child’s parents. This timely guide will appeal to any adult who is worried about the levels of violence and aggression committed against and by today’s youth, and who wants to raise emotionally healthy, kind, safe children amidst today’s dangers.
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How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression
By Brian D. Johnson, Laurie D. Berdahl
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Brian D. Johnson and Laurie D. Berdahl
All rights reserved.
Disconnected and Troubled Home Lives Linked to Danger
He was there for you, and he was the best listener I ever met. I realize now that that was because he didn't want to talk, and he was hiding.
— Sue Klebold about her son Dylan, one of two Columbine High School mass murderers
Close parent-child relationships are one of the bulwarks against suicide, homicide, and other violent behaviors. On April 20, 1999, seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold and eighteen-year-old Eric Harris murdered twelve of their classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. After the heartbreak of pivotal events, parents who may have thought they had good relationships with their kids find out they weren't good enough. For the Klebolds, in what must be agonizing retrospect, one-way communication didn't reflect closeness with Dylan or insight into his life. The investigation revealed evidence of depression and rage in Dylan in the months leading up to the horrific event, as well as significant time spent with a very disturbed friend, Eric.
Events such as these spark questions about how parenting may raise the risk of violent behavior, or how it can be powerful enough to prevent it. Although parents can't predict or prevent all the ills that befall children, qualities of parenting and home life can reduce the risk that children will be affected by aggression and violence. This chapter will illuminate these parenting and home-life factors.
A good summary of how aspects of parenting can diminish youth aggression is found in the Handbook of Child Psychology. In it, experts state, "A variety of family interventions designed to improve parents' discipline strategies, the quality of parent-child relationships, and parents' monitoring and supervision of children have proven efficacious in reducing aggressive behavior."
A low-quality parent-child relationship is, in fact, strongly predictive of antisocial and violent behavior, delinquency (repetitive antisocial or criminal behavior in a minor who parents can't control), and adult criminality. Juvenile delinquents are aggressive, often lying and manipulating people. Affectionate, supportive connections with kids, monitoring their activities, and using certain research-backed discipline methods all greatly decrease the chances they'll be aggressive or violent. Luckily, these same parenting elements also protect children from victimization.
After exploring warning signs of parent-child connections needing improvement, we'll discuss types of discipline and monitoring that can cause trouble or protect. Then we'll review troubled home lives that make kids much more likely to be victims as well as perpetrators. While you read, you'll notice that we mention links between parenting elements and other risk and protective factors for violence and aggression (such as mental health, peers, and substance abuse) that will be explored later.
Some readers may skim or even skip this chapter, anxious to get to the methods for protecting their children from specific situations. But without the research-backed foundations here, using all the forthcoming knowledge may be ineffective. For example, even if you've learned the warning signs for youth violence and tell your son that you'd like to hear about his troubles, without a close connection he might not tell you. Even though you've followed advice on aggression prevention, without a history of inductive discipline (see here), your child will be less likely to resist a friend's idea to make some quick bucks by stealing. And even when you do everything else well, it can still be hard to know what your children are struggling with and doing with friends, so you'll need to know how to monitor them adequately. In other words, if you don't know and act on the warning signs related to connections, discipline, and monitoring, you could follow suggestions on various realms of danger in this book and still have little or no influence on your children's actions and what happens to them.
Warning Signs of Disconnection Between You and Your Child
A close parent-child connection is a key foundation for being a strong influence in your children's lives. Strong relationships protect kids against becoming victims by promoting mental health while reducing risk factors such as drug and alcohol abuse and delinquent peer influence. They help kids cope with the common stressors of growing up today, a likely boost to protection from becoming violent or aggressive.
A close connection starts early — as infants and toddlers, children need sensitive responses to their needs. This promotes attachment, a beginning to your relationship that protects against behavioral and emotional problems.
What are some hallmarks of good parent-child relationships from preschool through adolescence? You both show affection, regard, and acceptance toward one another; you're involved and interested in their lives; your kids trust you'll be there when needed to help with problems and do what's best for them; you have mostly positive interactions; you both care about what happens to each other; and you're comfortable and enjoy being together. If you can't say these things are true, it's a warning sign that you don't know your child well enough. Along with the following other warning signs, it means that you most likely have, or will soon have, relationship problems — and that's dangerous.
Not Talking Together Often or Having Trouble Doing So
Pleasant conversations are the simplest way to connect and are an essential element of close relationships. Frequent short, friendly chats help you get to know kids as they change, make you seem interested and approachable, and increase chances for important lifesaving conversations. Difficulty talking together indicates disconnection and is a warning sign that your relationship needs work. You'll know you both need help communicating if:
You have trouble knowing what to say.
You mostly talk about solving problems instead of lighthearted, enjoyable topics.
One or both off you feels uncomfortable whe together.
You don't know each other's likes, dislikes, fears, and friends.
Your conversations generally turn into arguments or teasing.
Here are proven ideas for getting kids to talk and to build your relationship:
With older kids, minimize asking questions, because this tends to feel like an interrogation and may shut them down. Just start by commenting about something funny or happy until they say something.
Talk about their interests more often than yours.
Don't tease them.
Kids need more time to respond, so leave pauses.
Occasionally repeat back a version of what they said without interrupting so they know you're listening.
Look for opportunities to talk about feelings by noticing when they're expressed and when they're not directly expressed (think about their situations and ask yourself what you would feel like if it happened to you, and then start discussing that feeling).
Not surprisingly, there's a new impediment to communication: frequent separate media use. Now children and parents can be home together yet very isolated. You can help by making rules that limit media use and keep you connected.
Unrealistic Expectations of Children
Negative emotions or disregard for children often begins when parents expect things that kids aren't old enough or developed enough to do, or do well consistently. Parents can misinterpret failure to meet expectations as intentional misbehavior, meanness, or even rejection. This can make children lose trust and affection for a parent while promoting emotional and behavioral problems and damaging relationships. Understanding whether expectations for childhood abilities and achievement are realistic is therefore crucial to maintaining a close connection, and having unrealistic expectations is a warning sign that your relationship will suffer.
It's common to have unrealistic expectations for behavior during early childhood. An example is misunderstanding the emotional communication normally used by infants and toddlers to get attention and needs met. Because they're too young to regulate their emotions and haven't developed verbal skills, crying, screaming, whining, and fussing are normal. Toddlers often say no and disobey by choice as part of a healthy developmental stage of gaining independence, not to make parents mad. Some parents are unable to tolerate this, heightening the chance of abuse. When parents overreact with anger or punish small children for normal developmental behaviors, it erodes the connection and the child's future behavior.
Another cause of harmful overreactions that erode early parent-child relationships is unrealistic expectations for children's ability to obey parents. One- and two-year-olds aren't developed enough to follow commands consistently or to follow a discipline plan. By the time kids are three or four, they can do what we ask only about half of the time. On average, well-adjusted children aged five to seven can be expected to follow our requests about 70% of the time.
Unrealistically high expectations of a school-age child's performance in school and in activities like sports can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and rebellion. Thus, you can harm your child by expecting more than he or she can reasonably (or wants to) achieve or by emphasizing performance over the quality of your connection.
About grades, we feel compelled to comment further. Although good-enough grades and school engagement are protective factors against criminal activity and victimization, focusing on achievement scores and grades can discount the higher protective value of student character and life skills. Grade pressure also increases cheating, depression, and anxiety while lowering another protective factor: involvement in extracurricular activities. Cheaters are often aggressive (they steal, lie, and manipulate) to get ahead.
Parents often seem falsely reassured by good grades, leading them to ignore problems like disconnection, drug use, entitled attitudes, and truancy as long as grades stay high. Klebold and Harris were honor roll students. When children grow up with emotional problems, bad habits, and dangerous character traits, good grades can end up worthless in the big picture.
It can be difficult to know what to expect a child to be able to do and by what age. Interested readers can find an extensive list of realistic expectations for behavior and skills for children of all ages in our prior book, 7 Skills for Parenting Success.
Overreactions and Uncontrolled Anger
Healthy emotional expression is an important part of close connections. When a child isn't allowed to express emotions, or a parent takes charged emotions personally, it can damage their relationship and increase aggressive behavior. Encouraging kids to express emotions helps them deal with stress nonaggressively and promotes mental health. Although small children can't, older kids gradually learn to express emotions well by watching adults around them. You can help by looking for signs of distress and helping them describe and talk about their feelings. We'll discuss handling uncontrolled youth anger in chapter 3. For now, let's talk about uncontrolled emotions in parents.
Luckily, it's good for parents to show how they feel about how things are going, because it aids coping, and it's beneficial for youth to see how their actions can hurt our feelings as part of developing empathy. Plus, too much bottled-up, unexpressed anger can create other problems — depression, substance use, and child abuse. But it's how we express emotion that matters.
Expressing uncontrolled anger toward children is a warning sign that disconnection has happened or will happen. What does this look like? Yelling, belittling or making fun of people, putting them down, being sarcastic, using profanity, throwing things, physically threatening (slamming doors, pumping fists) or harming others, or destroying objects. Also, if you find yourself thinking that you overreacted, your anger was probably unhealthy.
When you've had enough and feel like lashing out, take a breath and share feelings with calm but direct speech by saying, "I feel ... when you ..." Be specific about what your kids did that hurt or was wrong and what they need to do about it. Get an apology, but keep in mind that apologies mean very little when behavior doesn't change; actions speak louder than words.
To stay calm, try asking yourself what you were thinking about the situation that made you upset. You see, what we think leads to how we act and feel; our reactions and feelings don't just pop out of nowhere — they come from what we are thinking about. And sometimes what we think about a child's behavior isn't true. For example, if you feel your blood boiling when you think that your son never does what you ask, check if this is true (it probably isn't). If you feel teary when you think your daughter is misbehaving because she doesn't care about you, ask yourself what evidence you have for that thought. Is she just mad or misbehaving, both of which don't have anything to do with caring about you?
Inaccurate negative thoughts about our kids can cause us to overreact with anger, feel depressed, or even hesitate when we need to act to protect our children. Overreacting to children's behaviors erodes our relationships and teaches them to overreact. So try making it a habit to check your thoughts about your child's behavior before reacting. If you find yourself regularly crying while sharing hurt feelings or still have uncontrolled anger, it's a warning sign that you need professional advice.
Exaggerations also defeat relationships by causing kids to lose trust in our ability to fairly judge them and the situation at hand. Exaggerations are used to make something seem extreme and persuade people to act, but because they usually don't reflect reality, listeners may tune out. All-or-none statements and ones containing the words always, never, every, none, all, any, and worst are examples: "You're the worst ..." (certainly someone in the world does something even more poorly), and "She never does anything without me asking" (surely she has picked up her clothes from the floor because she needed them). Your relationships will benefit from avoiding exaggerations and helping children recognize and avoid using them as they grow older.
Unhealthy Responses to Conflict
Conflict is normal in every family, but when it doesn't regularly get resolved equitably and nonaggressively, it erodes relationships, causes emotional distress, and teaches children to approach conflicts aggressively. Research clearly shows that parents arguing in front of kids is a significant stressor that impairs social and emotional development and undermines kids' ability to resolve problems. If it happens, make sure your kids know it isn't their fault.
Using nonaggressive conflict resolution in the family has the added benefit of teaching kids how to do it. Children need to learn to resolve conflicts with others nonaggressively so they won't get taken advantage of or get depressed or violent. Doing this face-to-face is best, but you can do this talking on the phone or even by text if it feels more comfortable. Here are some basics of nonaggressive conflict resolution:
Start by saying, "You seem upset about this. Let's talk it out to find a solution or a way to make it better," or "Are you upset at me (are we OK)? Let's talk."
Allow everyone to calmly explain their views, and apologize for parts played in the conflict (that lowers other people's defensiveness).
Use statements that begin with "I think ..." and "I feel ..." Thoughts and feelings are part of the person expressing them, so they're hard to argue or get upset with. Show empathy: "I feel bad that your feelings got hurt."
Make compromises where everyone gets a little of what they want.
Don't allow disrespect or teasing.
Escalation of anger means that talking should cease until everyone regains composure.
When doing this with your kids, saying, "I feel upset when you talk to me that way" will more likely keep communication going as compared to saying, "You make me mad when you talk to me that way," since your child can't argue that you don't feel upset. Saying, "I think you might change your mind later," or "I feel afraid when you do that," instead of, "Listen to me because I know better" helps kids understand your feelings, thoughts, and needs.
Also, model nonaggressive conflict resolution skills with coparents or other adults: let your kids observe you talking calmly about problems and coming up with mutually agreed-upon solutions.
Unproductive View of Parental Love
You may have heard this said about parenting: "All you need to do is love them." But this enticing, simplistic view appears inadequate in today's complex, aggressive, and violent world. Besides, love can be expressed and interpreted differently by parents and kids. What some parents consider loving behavior can come across to children as rejection (like when parents practice tough love).
Giving children optional items that parents wanted but couldn't have when growing up can feel like a loving gesture, and seems to be a common parental desire. Parents also often find themselves giving material gifts out of guilt (because of losing their tempers, not making it to a child's game, or being away too much). Although making children happy with gifts can feel good initially, it can promote spoiled attitudes that erode relationships. It also feeds entitlement, a risk factor for being aggressive or violent. Entitlement is when children have an exaggerated, unrealistic sense of self-importance and thus expect to get special treatment and pretty much whatever they want, regardless of the situation. Associating material gifts with love doesn't build healthy relationships, but connecting gifts of attention and caring to the concept of love does. The fondest memories of childhood usually involve pleasant experiences with parents — not gifts.
Excerpted from Warning Signs by Brian D. Johnson, Laurie D. Berdahl. Copyright © 2016 Brian D. Johnson and Laurie D. Berdahl. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Disconnected and Troubled Home Lives Linked to Danger 1
2 Perilous Thoughts and Emotions and Their Solutions 27
3 Mental and Emotional Issues Tied to Aggression and Violence 58
4 Harmful Media Influences and How to Deflect the Damage 87
5 Bullying and Putting a Stop to It 114
6 School Violence and How to Support School Safety 139
7 Hazardous Friendships and What to Do About Them 157
8 Sexual Aggression and Violence and How to Reduce Your Child's Risk 176
9 Drug and Alcohol Use That Heighten Chances of Violence 204
10 Home Gun Violence and How to Guard Against It 223
11 Child Sexual Abuse and How to Prevent Abduction 245
References and Suggested Reading 279