Kids who threaten are likely to be violent, study shows
When a child threatens to hurt someone, take it seriously. Children and adolescents who threaten violence are significantly more likely to behave violently than those who do not make threats, according to a study of more than 9,000 youngsters reported in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.
This chart shows the relative risk for violent behavior by youngsters who threaten frequently or infrequently compared to non-threateners, who are the baseline. For example, frequent threateners are about 14 times more likely than non-threateners to report having beaten someone. Infrequent threateners are about 4 times more likely.
"The strong relationship between threats of violence and self-reported interpersonal violence has important implications for violence prevention," the researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University conclude. Parents, peers, teachers and others involved with children should take such threats seriously, and "policies and procedures should be developed to ensure that children who threaten others receive proper management," the report cautions.
Students who frequently threaten others are at particularly high risk for violence, according to the researchers. Compared with students who did not threaten others, those who made frequent threats were 17 times more likely to report having shot at someone and 19 times more likely to have attacked someone with a knife, according to principal investigator Mark Singer of CWRU's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and co-author Daniel Flannery of KSU's Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
Their research is based upon pooled data from three large independent studies, which surveyed a total of 9,487 students in grades 3 through 12 at 33 schools in Ohio, Colorado, and Arizona. The students ranged in age from 7 to 19.
The students completed an in-school questionnaire that asked how often they had threatened to hurt someone and how often they had committed specific kinds of violence.
For elementary and middle school children, the questions addressed four types of violence: hitting someone first, hitting someone after they hit you, beating up someone, and attacking someone with a knife. High school students got the same four questions and also were asked if they had shot at someone with a gun.
"Threatening others infrequently or frequently ... was significantly associated with all five violent behaviors," the authors report.
While students who threaten infrequently were three to four times more likely to exhibit all five violent behaviors, the likelihood for violence by frequent threateners was substantially higher, especially for the more severe types of violence.
Students who threatened frequently were six to eight times more likely to hit someone who had hit them first. However, they were 14 to 23 times more likely than non-threateners to report having attacked someone with a knife and 17 times more likely to report having shot at someone.
"Teachers, guidance counselors, and principals need to take these threats seriously and to evaluate youngsters who threaten frequently for their potential for violence," Singer said. Such evaluations should be conducted using established protocols that look at the student's history of threat-making, previous violent behaviors, and earlier victimization. (See the accompanying list of screening tips.)
Screening children for violence potential
CWRU researcher Mark Singer offers the following tips to help parents and educators assess the risk of an adolescent becoming a perpetrator or victim of violence:
Adolescents who are exposed to violence at school, at home, or on the streets, are at greater risk of becoming perpetrators. Ask questions such as: How often in the past year have you been slapped, hit, or punched at school? How often have you seen someone else slapped, hit or punched?
Gauge the adolescent's threshold for fighting by assessing his or her anger levels and coping mechanisms. Ask questions such as: How often do you get really mad or frustrated? What makes you mad enough to fight? Do you get in fights or do you mostly avoid them? What do you do to calm yourself down when you get angry?
Try to learn where an adolescent feels safe and what steps he or she may take to feel safer. Ask questions such as: Do you feel safe at school? At home? Do people bring weapons to school? Do you carry one? Do you think a knife or gun would make you feel safer?
Determine if the adolescent is in a current conflict that could end in violence. Ask: Are you really angry with anyone now? Is anyone really angry with you? Are people after you or picking on you? Are you planning on getting even?
"Most professionals who work with children and adolescents recognize the imminent danger when a student threatens self-harm, and would not release such a child from their supervision until after the completion of a proper assessment for suicide potential," the authors write. "We believe a similar necessity for evaluation is required when children or adolescents threaten to harm others."
Similarly, children should be taught to tell a responsible adult if they know that someone is threatening to hurt another. "That parallels what we are already doing with children and suicide prevention," Singer said. "We teach them that if they know someone is threatening to hurt themselves, that is a secret they cannot keep."
Singer believes the study's large and diverse sample enhances its validity. The sample was comprised of three cohorts:
A 1992-93 survey of 3,724 high school students in six public high schools in Cleveland, a Cleveland suburb, a small Northeast Ohio town, and Denver. Their socioeconomic status ranged from low-income to blue collar to upper middle-class.
A 1995-96 survey of 2,245 elementary and middle school children in 11 public schools in Cleveland, a small Ohio city, and a rural district in Ohio. They were primarily lower to lower-middle class.
A 1996-97 survey of 3,518 third through sixth graders in 16 Tucson area public schools. They were from lower or lower-middle class urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Across the three samples, the percentage of African-Americans ranged from 6 to 35 percent, Caucasians from 31 to 57 percent, and Hispanics from 5 to 51 percent. About half were male.
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