When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

Coping with mental illness, substance abuse, and the problems that tear families apart

Is Your Child Dangerous?

Warning signs and guidance

In 2009, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds ran for Virginia governor. Gus, his son, was a near-constant companion. Friends, family, and political advisers all report that the two had a close relationship. But just four years later in November 2013, Gus allegedly stabbed his father and then killed himself. As is almost always the case after such a shocking tragedy, reports began to surface that Gus Deeds was a troubled child. A gifted music student, he dropped out of the College of William and Mary, and was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation shortly before he allegedly stabbed his father.

Stories like this are all too real for families of troubled children. While friends and family happily attend college graduations, weddings, and milestone birthdays, parents of troubled children may struggle to keep their children out of jail, in school, and alive. Unfortunately, there's no single symptom that's a surefire precursor to violence, leaving no guaranteed method to determine if your child could become a threat. If you are injured or dead, though, you can't help your child. Thus it's important to consider whether your child poses a safety hazard, painful as such consideration may be.

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Why Troubled Children Harm Loved Ones

The first stage of grief is denial, and when parents face the possibility of their children becoming dangerous, denial can last for years—even decades. Many parents mistakenly believe that, because their children love them, their children couldn't possibly pose a threat. But Senator Deeds' story makes it clear that this isn't necessarily true. Like many troubled children, Gus Deeds loved his father. But love isn't enough to protect you.

Most victims of violent crime are victimized by people they know. And when your child is mentally ill, involved in criminal behavior, or addicted to dangerous substances, she may blame you for her problems. A confrontation about drug use or a poorly timed intervention can send some children over the edge. In some cases, though, children harm their parents because they are the most readily available victims. You're more likely to be around your child during a fit of rage than a stranger, which makes you a much more likely victim.

The Warning Signs

It is important to note that only a vanishingly slim minority of people with mental health concerns ever become violent. Indeed, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

However, people with mental illness and substance use disorders have, almost by definition, a diminished capacity to make good decisions. This can place both you and your family in danger, making it critically important to regularly evaluate the safety risk your child poses. If you notice any of the following risk factors, it's time to get outside help and consider developing a safety plan:

• A history of psychosis. While not all people who experience psychosis are dangerous, psychosis divorces a patient from reality, severely undermining her judgment and potentially even interfering with her ability to recognize or care for loved ones.

• A fascination with guns, knives, or other weapons. Several perpetrators of school shootings and other acts of mass violence were obsessed with or stockpiling weapons.

• A previous history of violence. Past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and violence tends to escalate over time. If your child has assaulted you or a family member, she may pose an ongoing danger.

• Abuse of children or animals

• Starting fires

• A credible, specific threat. If your child has told you he plans to harm you or someone else and has the means to complete this plan, this is not the same thing as saying, “I could just kill you, mom.”

• Increasing social isolation, or problems in a romantic relationship such as a divorce or breakup. Troubled children are more likely to act out during times of immense stress.

• A fascination with violent media, or creation of graphic or violent art

• No empathy for others

Getting Help

If you're worried that your child is dangerous, don't wait to act. You need immediate intervention from a qualified professional. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists are skilled at assessing risk and making treatment recommendations, so if your child is willing, she needs immediate mental health care. Psychiatric hospitalization may be the best way to ensure your safety as well as your child's. If you have any suspicions that your child could become violent, weapons should be immediately removed from the home. If you find yourself in an acute crisis with your child where safety is at risk, 911 should be called.

If your child is unwilling to seek help, then you need to prioritize your own safety. This might require drawing clear boundaries, evicting your child from your home, and developing a family safety plan. While such an approach can seem harsh, your safety and the safety of your other children must come first. 

References:

Frances, R. (2007). Crime Victimization in Adults With Severe Mental Illness: Comparison With the National Crime Victimization Survey. Yearbook of Psychiatry and Applied Mental Health, 2007, 108-109. doi: 10.1016/S0084-3970(08)70405-5

Peterson, J. L., & Newman, R. (2000). Helping to curb youth violence: The APA-MTV "Warning Signs" initiative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31(5), 509-514. doi: 10.1037//0735-7028.31.5.509

Warning signs: What to watch for before a school shooting or violent act. (2012, December 19). ABC News Channel 5. Retrieved from http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/national/warning-signs-what-to-w...

 

Joel Young, M.D., who teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University, is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, near Detroit.

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