The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Trash Talk or Tremors of Trouble

When a child threatens to kill

I picture him as a small, scrawny kid who walks with the swagger upperclassmen of elementary schools sometimes adopt. I imagine him with short dark hair, frantic blue eyes, and a chip on his shoulder, not much interested in school and not well-liked by the majority of his peers. Of course, these are just my fantasies; the juvenile justice system protects children from the media frenzy adult felons arouse.

In real life, this 11-year-old Fort Colville Elementary school fifth grader was convicted last week of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. A fourth grade sidekick had reportedly agreed to point the gun at anyone who tried to intervene in the killing of a female classmate who was targeted because she was “annoying.” School authorities later discovered a list of six other peers the plotters wanted to assassinate. 

Fortunately, the plot was discovered when an alert fourth-grader told a school employee that he had seen one of the boys playing with a knife on a school bus. School authorities discovered a knife, a 45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and a full ammunition magazine in the 10 year old’s backpack. During an interview with school counselor Debbie Rogers, the 11 year old told her he and his friend had planned the murder and he was going to stab the girl to death the day the plot was discovered. While the defense team successfully argued that the fifth grader had a history of symptoms of bipolar disorder, they were apparently unable to show that he lacked awareness of the potential consequences of his actions.

My Voice is Bigger than Yours

Most threats made by children, adolescents, or adults are not carried out; they are issued out of anger or desperation. In fact, most of us parents would admit to uttering an empty threat or two (you’ll be grounded for life if you ever do that again!) when we’ve come to the end of our rope or just feel powerless in a situation. The motivation for a child’s threat is often the same.

The desire to exert control over our environment seems to be a built-in human drive and kids learn early on that words can carry a lot of weight. The five year old who, In the middle of a playground squabble, tells his peer that he “wants him dead” is much more likely to be experimenting with power and intimidation than to have a serious death wish against his current nemesis. This is especially true if the child has no prior history of behavior problems and spoke out of anger.

At the same time, a threat is a threat and any child who utters one should experience the consequences of his words. A first grader who tells a classmate she’s going to kill her should be disciplined even if the remark was made “as a joke” or the child insists she “didn’t mean it.” The sooner children learn the power of words, the faster they will learn to use them wisely. However, the punishment should fit the crime; it’s hard to see how suspending a 7 year old for nibbling his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and then saying “Bang! Bang!” fits in with any rational risk management strategy.

Some Threats are Bigger than Others

At the same time, children and adolescents who make threats are significantly more likely to become violent than those who don’t. Anonymous surveys of almost 10,000 third to twelfth grade children revealed that children who threatened peers were three to four times more likely to become violent and students who made frequent threats were most likely to carry them out.   

Of course, no matter how old (or young) a child, some threats should be taken more seriously than others. For example, let’s say a child threatens to bring a gun to school. Not only is this a serious remark, it raises questions that need to be answered.  

Are there guns in the child’s home? Does this child have access to them? Is the child closely supervised? What do the parents have to say about their child’s remarks and/or behavior; are they taking it seriously? 

Consider the Context

The 11 year old convicted of planning to murder his classmate exhibited many other problem behaviors. This is true of most children/teens who follow through on a violent threat. Just as there are certain aspects of a threat that should raise the alarm—directed at a specific person, involving a specific plan—there are ongoing behaviors that should up the ante in terms of the need for fast intervention.

While we psychologists are notoriously poor at predicting future behavior, the best clues we have still like in examining the person’s past behavior. A child with a history of violent or assaultive behavior is more likely to carry out his/her threats and be violent. This is especially true when other indicators are present, such as:

  • access to guns or other weapons
  • bringing a weapon to school
  • a history of making threats
  • family history of violent behavior or suicide attempts
  • blaming others and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for one's own actions
  • recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss, or rejection
  • bullying or intimidating peers or younger children
  • preoccupation with themes and acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, magazines, comics, books, video games, and Internet sites
  • mental illness, such as depression, mania, psychosis, or bipolar disorder
  • use of alcohol or illicit drugs
  • disciplinary problems at school or in the community (delinquent behavior)
  • difficult or nonexistent peer relationships
  • little or no supervision or support from parents or other caring adult

 So Now What Do We Do?

A serious threat should never be dismissed as idle talk or a ploy for attention. Children should be encouraged to report verbal threats of violence and parents, teachers, or other adults should immediately talk with a child who issued one. If the child continues to voice violent thoughts or plans, s/he should be immediately evaluated by a mental health professional who specializes in working with children and adolescents. If it’s a first-time offense, the consequences should be determined by the risk factors that matter—the nature and severity of the threat and the child’s age, past behavior, personality and current stressors—and not the hauntings of previous school shootings or a politician’s ambitions.  

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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