How to Spot the Troubled Child

Be proactive and know the warning signs to head off tragedy

By Dwain Hebda


The statistics surrounding destructive youth behaviors—from suicide to violence against others —are shocking to the point of numbing. It’s enough to scare any parent or teacher into hyper-vigilance to recognize warning signs that could head off the next personal or community tragedy. 

But while experts say adults in authority are a critical piece of the intervention process, many don’t know what to look for and many parents don’t want to admit what they’re seeing.

“When you think about your kids, you’re probably not on a regular basis wondering if they’re stockpiling weapons or if they ever thought about shooting up a school,” said Maureen Skinner, licensed psychological examiner with Chenal Family Therapy’s Conway office. “We tend to not think in those terms, even when it’s right in front of us. ‘Well, you know, boys will be boys. He was just mad.’ We make excuses for people that we love.”

“It’s about being in their business. A lot of the kids who are having thoughts about doing things that are violent, it’s all blogged on the computer,” said Angelica Brown, director of clinical services for Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare in Little Rock. “As they say, you don’t want to be a friend to the kid, you want to be an administrator. You want to be a parent. That’s fine if they’re mad and upset about it.”

For years, red flags signaling impending trouble included kids talking about suicide or violence, giving belongings away or personality changes such as aggression or showing declining interest in grades, friends or activities. But there are others.

“Some of the earliest warning signs are the defiant type behaviors, just general rule breaking, lack of empathy,” said Skinner. “In little kids, if their friend is hurt, then they hug them, right? Without that empathy, there is no kind of compassion and that’s generally a warning sign.”

Social media gets a lot of blame for giving kids places to hide their true thoughts, or for inflating issues through negative peer comments or online bullying. And while that’s true, Brown cautioned parents not to rely exclusively on what they see out of their child online.

“Everyone doesn’t put everything on Facebook; some of them are savvy enough to say ‘Hey, I’m just going to write this in my journal,’” she said. “Listening to dark music or writing dark poetry can be warning signs.”

Both Brown and Skinner said that, while parents should definitely pay attention to their teen’s moods and behaviors, that attention should only be an extension of what’s already been started long before. A long-term relationship and involvement in your child’s life is the best way to develop sufficient instincts to know when something’s amiss.

“Always take it seriously. Always ask about the taboo subjects like suicide or self-harm or some other kind or harm of someone else,” Skinner said. “One of the things that we’re seeing on a national scale is this general feeling of disconnectedness. You have to be involved in your kid’s life. Know who their friends are, know where they’re going, what they’re doing. 

“We’re not actually supposed to be their best friends that let them do whatever; it’s our job to be overly involved. Yes, it’s important for them to have privacy, but it’s far more important for them to be safe.”

Student Violence By the Numbers

Arkansas ranks 10th in the nation in overall suicide rates, with nearly 20 people taking their own life per 100,000 in the population. 

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and the fifth leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14, per 2015 data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The CDC reported that in 2015, eight percent of students nationally, in grades 9 through 12, had been in a physical fight on school property in the past year. 

Four percent of students in this age group reported carrying a weapon to school in the past 30 days; six percent had been threatened with a weapon on school property at least once in the past 12 months. 

As of mid-February’s incident in Parkland, Fla., there have been seven firearm attacks in U.S. schools this year. (“Firearm attack” is defined as deliberate firearm discharge during school hours.) Five of these incidents resulted in injuries or death.

Sources: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and