Risk-Proof Your Child

What you can do to safeguard your kid at school.

For most parents, the horrific images of Columbine and the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania are indelibly etched in their minds. Between shopping for school supplies and seeing your child off on that first school day of the year, chances are the thoughts will cross your mind, Could a shooting happen at my child's school? and What can I do to protect my child?

Here's some good news: According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control, and National School Safety Center, less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children occur in or around school grounds. School's still one of the safest places for your child to be. But problems at school such as bullying—a common thread that runs through the experiences of many of the perpetrators of school violence—remain. Add that to a pop culture that desensitizes our youth to violence, and there's cause for concern.

How can you help your child avoid either becoming the victim or the perpetrator of violence? What's the best way to risk-proof your child against bullying or the impact of pop-culture violence? To get some answers, I talked to Linda Mintle, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker, author of Kids Killing Kids (Creation House), and concerned mom of two children. Here are "Dr. Linda's" insights on the issues.

If school's still the safest place for a kid to be, why all the concern about school violence?

Dr. Linda: Violence seems to be happening at earlier and earlier ages. We're seeing more incidences in middle school now. And since statistics show most violence is perpetrated by boys, it's important to take a look at the cultural factors that define masculinity. In our culture, unfortunately, part of that is being aggressive. In movies, the hero's often the guy who comes in and shoots 'em up. There's a lot of glorification of guns and violence in our culture.

This issue's particularly significant to me since I have a son.

What can a parent do to keep her child from being drawn into the violence?

Dr. Linda: The number-one way any parent can prevent that is through a meaningful relationship with her child. There's a growing number of kids today who are depressed and disconnected from meaningful relationships in their lives. They don't know how to resolve conflict or solve problems. Girls tend to turn inward when they're depressed, which is why they have a higher incidence of eating disorders, while boys typically act out their depression with aggression or anger. And a weapon's a powerful way to make a point.

What specific steps should a mom take?

Dr. Linda: First of all, know your child, who his friends are, what they're doing. Listen to his music, look at his video games, watch his favorite movies. It takes time, but you have to know the culture. Twenty years ago, we weren't bombarded by so many media images of violence and aggression.

Such as on MTV?

Dr. Linda: It's not just MTV, violent movies, or video games. It's the overall thread of disrespect for authority, the picking on others, you find it everywhere—in TV sitcoms and song lyrics.

But there's another aspect to this whole issue: Twenty years ago, when I'd counsel a kid who'd stabbed another student, he'd recognize what he did wasn't morally right. When I see teens in therapy now, their attitude is, Hey, he was in my way! He deserved it!

That's unnerving.

Dr. Linda: Kids today seem less empathetic. They're more hands-off because either they're afraid or they think, It's not my problem. This stems from the way moral standards have been removed from our culture; truth now is whatever you want it to be, and so our kids are becoming spiritually impoverished. Many kids from affluent homes have all their material needs met but haven't had any moral training. That's why it's so important to start early with your child.

Doing what?

Dr. Linda: Discussing, for instance, how the message of a program or a CD relates to what the Bible says, what we believe as Christians to be truth. For example, ask your child, "Is it a good idea to go around talking like the South Park cartoon characters who are always talking about who's 'killing Kenny'? Why's that even funny? What do you think God thinks about that kind of talk?"

But while we can control what our kids are exposed to in our home, we can't always control what they're exposed to at their friends' homes.

Dr. Linda: Yet if you teach your kids when they're in elementary school what messages you want them to listen to, when they go to someone else's house, they'll learn how to make right decisions away from Mom and Dad.

Let's face it, it's all too easy for parents to focus on the negative things our kids do—we yell at them or tell them they can't do this or that any longer. But the old adage of parent training is this: When your child does something right, really let him know it!

For example, when my son, Matt, was 11 years old, he told me he'd refused to watch a movie at someone's home because he knew it wouldn't be good for him. My husband and I made a big deal about it! We said, "Not only are we proud of you for making that decision, but God's pleased. You resisted peer pressure, and that's great!"

It gets tricky when there are varying standards even among Christian families.

Dr. Linda: One big problem is that Christian parents aren't necessarily making wise decisions in their own media choices. Several years ago we were with another family and their 12-year-old daughter was watching the movie Gladiator. I'd never seen it, so I sat down with her to watch. The violence in that movie is huge! I'm one of those people who's affected by visual images, so I had to keep covering my eyes. I looked at this 12 year old and asked her, "Doesn't this bother you?" "No, not really. I'm used to seeing this kind of violence," she said. When my son walked in, I said, "Matt, you can't watch this! It's not appropriate." He scurried out of the room, but about an hour later, he said, "Mom, I don't understand. You don't want me to watch it, but you were sitting there watching it. What's the difference?" I told him there's a difference in what I can handle and what he can handle—but I also had to ask myself, Was this something that was good for me? Parents need to think about what they're modeling at home.

What danger signs should parents be aware of?

Dr. Linda: Look for signs of depression in your child or any of his friends: changes in mood, appetite, eating and sleeping patterns; withdrawal from peers or activities at school; grade decline; any talk about suicide; any threat to hurt somebody else, or cruelty to animals or young children—those are red flags. Beware of isolation, signs of occultic involvement, or extreme fascination with violent video games or websites, and weapons.

What about bullying?

Dr. Linda: The mental health community has begun to take a stand against the notion that being teased is a normal part of growing up. It's a cruel part of what kids do to other kids, and needs to be stopped. Now our advice to parents and teachers is to make it clear bullying will not be allowed. Research shows us that a kid who's identified as a bully by age 8 is 3 times more likely to end up in prison by age 30. Bullying and name-calling happen everywhere. But they shouldn't be tolerated. When a child's bullying, the playground supervisor, parent, teacher, and administrator need to take a no-nonsense approach.

You mean a zero-tolerance policy?

Dr. Linda: Exactly. Adults need to step in. If your child's been bullied, you need to find out all the information about the situation—and that means talking to the other students, other parents, and teachers. Then, look at your child's behavior—how did he react, what did he do? Teach your child through role-playing ways to avoid escalating the conflict with the bully so nothing terrible happens.

When I worked with kids in the Chicago public schools, we met during free times to learn about social skills. I had them write out tough situations, such as dealing with a bully, on 3x5 cards. We'd act out those situations, then discuss strategies for how to handle them appropriately. If a kid has a mental scenario to follow in case he finds himself the brunt of bullying, he'll feel more prepared.

I've had to be vocal about the issue of bullying at my children's school, because Matt was the victim of some cruel name-calling. We role-played strategies for Matt to use in handling the teasing. Then we talked to the school administrator and asked for adult intervention.

I asked permission from the teacher to talk to the kids involved. One by one I asked each if they'd been calling my son names, and they admitted they had! So I asked them to recall how badly it hurt when they'd been the recipient of name-calling. Because my children attend a Christian school, I was able to talk to them about what Jesus would do. While what I was able to do in a Christian school context might not be feasible in a public school setting, the important thing is this: A parent needs to get involved. Things became much better for Matt after my husband and I got involved, but it took a lot of time on our part.

Any other practical suggestions?

Dr. Linda: Tell your kid to avoid being alone with a bully; see if he or she can mobilize support from the other kids to place peer pressure against the bully's behavior.

Most of all, make sure you become a real advocate for your child. You have to be assertive; you have to be articulate; you have to understand the power structures of your school. If you go to the principal and he doesn't act, don't stop there. Write a letter to the district superintendent. Attend meetings. Talk to other parents. All these things are powerful. Don't give up.

What if your child's the bully?

Dr. Linda: Take action early—and that may involve counseling for your child and for your family.

It may help to look at how your family resolves conflict. Is there a problem with managing anger at home? Unfortunately, bullies often come from home situations where they've been bullied.

Can you cultivate a sense of empathy in your child?

Dr. Linda: Sure. It's teaching your child how to walk in the shoes of other people, explaining the consequences of their actions—how those actions affect someone physically, spiritually, emotionally. Look at your own empathy skills: When your child's struggling, what do you do as a parent? Do you yell, criticize, or say, "I understand how you felt. What do we do with that feeling?"

Ask yourself, When I feel angry, do I lash out, or do I get my anger under control, as the Bible says to do? James 1:19 tells us we should be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." Again, if we as adults deal with our anger appropriately and show empathy to others, our children will learn from us.

What's the best way to start the school year?

Dr. Linda: Ask your kids some open-ended questions: "You're about to start the school year. One thing everybody thinks about is if there'll be violence this year at school. How much are you thinking about that? What are your concerns, if any?" Listen, and if your child has lots of concerns, talk about them. If he doesn't, say, "Well, this is an on-going discussion, so if anything happens, I'd like you to tell me." Keep in mind the age, temperament, and experience of your child, because they all react differently to this problem. Some can't grasp the reality of it because it's a distant thing, others are more apathetic. Some are openly frightened.

How can a parent handle her fears about her child's safety?

Dr. Linda: First, pray about it, and if you're married, deal with your reaction as a couple. If you and your child are truly concerned, find out what's being done in your school to make things safe. What happens to the kid who makes angry threats? If there's a problem, to whom do your kids talk? What's the school's policy about weapons? If your teen says, "This kid keeps talking about how he's killing little animals," encourage him to speak up. Many schools now have tip boxes so a student can pass along this type of information to the administration anonymously. Most kids are more willing to share this type of information now, because they've seen the consequences of what could happen if it's not taken seriously.

Support early identification of depressed or angry kids and preventive counseling programs in your school. Without minimizing the possibility of danger, continue to stress to your child that school's still the safest place to be. Talk about your concerns, but don't overburden your kids with your anxiety.

Ultimately, it's a spiritual issue, too, isn't it?

Dr. Linda: It's an issue of training your child, and praying he has an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. So while we don't want to go around thinking something will happen to us or to our child, we know that if something does, we have the hope of Christ in us; our eternity's secured.

More than 300 times in the Bible, God tells us not to fear. We need to get a grip on it. One way to keep from being anxious about your child's safety is to think on all God's promises. Take that fearful thought captive and say, Yes, there's potential for violence, but I'm going to choose to think on the good things of God. It doesn't mean you're in denial, but you're going to believe God's with your child, no matter what.

Philippians 4:6 tells us not to be anxious about anything, but to be thankful. Many people wonder, Am I supposed to thank God for the violence? No, you're supposed to thank God that his promises are real, that you can trust him with your child.

You know what happens when you do? You move from asking God to give you peace, to interceding for the kids whose hearts are so troubled they want to commit violent acts. We can work in the cultural media, we can work at getting prayer back in the schools, we can work at getting family problems corrected, or at identifying depressed kids. But the only real solution to violence is changing the hearts of kids through the power of Christ.

For more information about at-risk kids, check out Dr. Linda's Web site at www.drlindahelps.com.

Want More Info?

Check out the following resources:

BOOKS

Chain Reaction: A Call to Compassionate Revolution, by Darrell Scott with Steve Rabey (Thomas Nelson)

Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America's Soul, by Wendy Murray Zoba (Brazos Press)

Kids Killing Kids, by Linda Mintle, Ph.D. (Creation House)

She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, by Misty Bernall (Pocket Books)

Stop the Violence: Educating Ourselves to Protect Our Youth (workbook and leader's guide), by Wilda K. W. Morris (Judson Press)

WEB SITES & ORGANIZATIONS

Center for Prevention of School Violence
313 Chapanoke Rd., Ste. 140
Raleigh, NC 27603
800-299-6054

Partnership Against Violence Network
www.pavnet.org

Working Against Violence Everywhere
www.waveamerica.com

www.familyeducation.com

YouthBuilders
32236 Paseo Adelanto, Ste. D
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
800-397-9725
www.youthbuilders.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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