[Editor’s note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It’s now featured here as part of our new general-health section.]

by Richard Shadick, Ph.D.

Q. How do you know when a troubled young person is in danger of becoming violent?

A. Tragic school shootings in the last few years have made many parents worry whether their kids will be safe at school. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to predict what might happen because there are many different reasons a person may become violent. However, law enforcement officials and mental health professionals have learned from past tragedies.

Red-Flag Characteristics

Most school shooters are males who are isolated, have limited social skills, and have suffered a series of embarrassing or humiliating situations in their life, often involving peers. Being bullied is often a common theme with violent people. They also tend to have problems in relationships with parents, girlfriends and friends.

There are warning signs parents can pay attention to that suggest violence is a real possibility. Things to look out for include an in-depth plan to hurt others that may or may not include a threat, carrying firearms or other weapons, a history of torturing animals, problems with controlling their emotions—particularly anger (which often leads to fighting)—and a high level of drug or alcohol use.

There are other things to consider, particularly if the person’s problems have been present for a while. Often, violent and aggressive people become more and more withdrawn and irritable over time. Sometimes they lose touch with reality and become fearful that others are out to get them. Their appearance may worsen because they don’t care about how they dress or whether they’re showering. They may be intrigued by violence and fascinated by weapons and gangs. Some even join gangs. They may have difficulty acknowledging other peoples’ feelings and may be quick to feel hurt even when there is no provocation.

What to Do If You See Warning Signs of Violence

Knowing when and what to do if you recognize these issues in someone is a lot easier than knowing when someone will turn violent. The best time to intervene is immediately.

If your child is worried about a student, have them tell someone they trust and who is in a position to help with the concern, such as a school official. In this day and age, virtually all school officials have specific training and follow guidelines about how to help a troubled person. They know how to reach out to the violent student to get him the help he needs.

It is most important that your child not remain silent. This silence is most often how violent people slip through the cracks and don’t get the help they need.

If your child feels in harm’s way it’s best for them not to be near this person. Help your child get some protection or come up with a plan to minimize contact.

Identifying the warning signs and taking immediate action will go a long way to ensuring school is a safer place.


Richard Shadick, Ph.D., is director of Pace University’s Counseling Center in New York, an adjunct professor of psychology and a psychologist in private practice. He specializes in suicide and homicide prevention in schools.