Based on the recent tragic events in Ct. and around the country, the following piece is designed to give the reader a template or outline of how to handle certain situations, and very briefly addresses parental, child/adolescent and even young adult and adult issues.
It is by no means comprehensive nor is it a substitute for talking to someone or seeking professional care. Hopefully, the following will provide some tips that can make lives easier, increase communication and even prevent tragedy.
There are warning signs we can all look for in individuals who could manifest certain negative behaviors, both to themselves and/or others. Looking for subtle or major changes in behavior is a good start, and sometimes we even need to listen to our “gut” if someone’s behaviors feel “off” or trouble us in some way. For example, a child, adolescent or even adult who begins to exhibit isolative, acting out, or even depressed and sullen behaviors could be going through a period of great difficulty.
Perhaps they begin to draw or write things “disturbing” or inconsistent with their personality, or become the bully or focus of a bully. Or perhaps the person is saying or doing something that is starting to scare people, parents, friends or even teachers.
These are some of the possible signs of impending trouble and should be addressed instead of thinking “they will work it out themselves.” These behaviors are not the only “red-flags” and one needs to be aware of any changes. Consequently, absence of these behaviors is not a sure sign someone will not engage in negative behaviors.
Being aware of behavioral changes and changes in mood and attitude is very important as is knowing what to do, such as contacting a school or clinical psychologist or even a crisis or help line for further aid.
Increasing our awareness of those around us and even those in our homes can provide clues that could help prevent tragedy, and sometimes we may need to play the “detective” if you will.
This goes even more for friends than parents. Just by watching and noticing differences in your friends or child’s behavior could be a cue, a sign of something coming. Like a dark sky and clouds providing warning before a storm, tragic events are seldom spur-of-the-moment.
There is often evidence that can be missed to all but those closest to the person, and it is these people who can often make the greatest change and prevent a catastrophe. There are national and local preventions lines and other services where one can relay concerns and learn how to help. Often, subtle changes in a person’s attitude or behavior may not indicate much, or they may mean everything.
It is important to be aware of your friend’s behavior as well as their wishes and actions. For example, someone steals a gun, says they are better of dead, and/or talks of killing others or themselves, those are considered warning signs and cries for help. If your friend or classmate was “balling their eyes out” and pleading for help, you would likely help them.
Unfortunately, many people, young and old, do not often use such extreme language and behaviors. Instead, their cries for help are often dismissed as them “having a bad day”, “being a loser” even if their acts put others or themselves in danger. Of course, this is not to say people cannot have a bad day, but that is where communication and being a “detective” can help.
Aside from increasing our awareness, one of the most important things we all can do is increase our communication with each other. In today’s world, however, this term is often overused and misunderstood. Communication in this sense is meant to explain the need for children, parents, adults, basically everyone to really talk to each other and hear what the other person is saying, the quality of the communication being key.
It means not just trying, but really making the time to sit down, without distraction, and asking how the other feels or what they are thinking about. It may seem easy, but it can be harder then it seems. Of course many children will not seem to respond to this this, but by doing it not just on one day, but across years, children can learn to communicate with parents and others.
With all people, young and old, it is important to keep these lines of communication open, asking with genuine caring, and not being judgmental or even shocked at responses given.
We may even have to come out of our “comfort zone” as well, communicating and approaching people who appear are not “doing so well” or seem isolated. They do not even have to be family, but perhaps a teen or someone at school who seems distressed, upset, or just “lost”. Asking directly may prove to be the best course of action, knowing how to handle the response is just a crucial.
Handling a response that one does not expect can be troubling, but often letting the person know they are not alone and that help exists is important. Help in the form of school counselors, professional counselors, clergy, parents, and even help prevention lines can be the first step in preventing tragedy.
It is important to note that while many people fear asking about such sensitive topics like suicide or homicide, that more than likely you will not be putting an idea into someone’s head.
These things are thought about more than people may think and if someone does answer “yes”, try to hold your concern and instead let them tell you “what’s going on”, then gently promote seeking help. If the risk of homicide or suicide seems very real and immediate, you may have to take a big step and report this yourself. Again, help lines and calls to 911 are easier to deal with than having to cope with the aftermath of a tragedy that could have been prevented.
Parents, in the wake of a tragedy can take a few basic steps to help reduce trauma for their children and even themselves. Media coverage and watching/listening to the news relentlessly can be traumatic, even if the person was not a direct witness to such events.
It is important to monitor what your children are watching on TV and talk to them as needed. Discussions around such delicate subjects need to be tailored to each child’s age and maturity, not over asking about events, but addressing concerns they have or manifest, such as school refusal, fear of leaving home or of losing ones family. If one is unsure, contacting a professional such as school counselor or other professional can be helpful.
As mentioned above, this is by no means a comprehensive piece and only to be used as an outline and not a substitute for professional help. Contacting school or other professionals can be very helpful in preventing and dealing with tragedy.
If your concerns are dire and immediate it is recommended that you contact the crisis hotlines that can be local or nationally based, or even 911. For example, services like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-talk (8225) could be an option and even 911 can provide assistance. With little to no lag or waittime, these minutes can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Timothy W. Hughes, Psy.D
Compass Point Comprehensive Psychological Services