Parental Abuse: Handling a Teen That Threatens Harm

Some defiant behavior is expected from your teenager as he tries to navigate the changes in his body and his life. But you may find yourself faced with a defiant teen who is making threats of harming themselves or others.

At what point do you start to take threats seriously?

What should you do if you feel overwhelmed by the threats?

Each year we see stories on the news about violent behavior at the hands of teenagers. We see stories about teens taking their own lives. Parents and friends of these teens often wonder if they should have taken threats seriously or whether there was something they could have done to prevent it.

When should threats be seen as concerning?

While most threats that an angry or defiant teen makes are not followed through on, it is important to listen to a teen who is speaking this way. Much of what is said can be in response to feeling hurt or rejected, disappointed, or trying to get parental attention.

When to take threats of harm seriously:

  • When your teen threatens to hurt or kill himself. This is particularly important to pay attention to if he has already shown signs of self-harming behavior. Self-harm is not always a sure sign that a teen is at risk of suicide. It is something that should be addressed, however.
  • When your teen threatens to hurt or kill someone else. Many of us have been guilty of blurting out things in the heat of an argument. “I could just kill you!” While that is certainly not appropriate behavior, it’s generally harmless. If your teen has been making consistent, detailed threats against someone else, it could be something more serious.
  • When your teen threatens to damage or destroy items, cars, and more. Throwing things when at the height of an argument isn’t necessarily appropriate behavior, but it does happen to the best of us. If your teen is threatening to crash the car or destroy electronics or perhaps punch holes in the wall, this should be taken seriously. The destruction of property is difficult to deal with at home, but it can also bring the potential for some serious legal consequences outside of the home.
  • When your teen threatens people at school. Even if your teen is genuinely reacting out of anger or frustration, this is something that needs to be taken seriously. With so much school violence in the news, it is always important to pay attention to these threats, particularly if your teen has been bullied or otherwise struggles at school.

These threats are not always an indicator of what type of behavior your teen will display. That said, if there are previous situations where your teen has acted out with aggression or has harmed himself, there is an increased risk he will repeat the behavior.

Understanding the risk factors

Several risk factors can increase the potential for your teen making his threats a reality. Knowing what to look for could help you to address the situation before it escalates.

Potential risk factors of violence:

  • Previous threats or suicide attempts. This would be a concern if your teen did not get the right help in the past.
  • A history of aggression or violence towards others.
  • A history of being a bully to other students and siblings, or a history of having been bullied.
  • Experiencing abuse in the home or elsewhere. This could include emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse.
  • Trouble at home, including abuse and violence. A family member with a history of mental illness or suicide attempts could also be concerning.
  • Having access to weapons or a history of taking weapons to school.
  • Struggling with mental illness, whether bipolar disorder, psychosis, depression, or severe anxiety, particularly if combined with the use of alcohol or drugs.

Deviant behavior that results in problems at school or trouble with the law can also be a potential red flag. A history of vandalism, animal cruelty, or arson can also be concerning.

Steps to take when you suspect their threats are serious

It can be tempting to dismiss threats as just being something said impulsively. However, even idle talk should be addressed so that the teen understands that these things are not appropriate.

If your teen responds with a defensive attitude, is argumentative, or keeps talking about violent behavior, it is time to admit that you need to get more help for this situation. It’s tempting to think that you can handle a teen in crisis within the family or with some help from the school.
However, getting your teen an assessment from mental health professionals is essential to finding the right solution for these threats and this aggression.

How to help your troubled teen:

  • Reach out to school counselors for guidance and resources. Keep in mind that the school may take action if they believe that your teen is a credible threat to school staff and students.
  • Get your teen evaluated by a team of mental health professionals. There may be an underlying mental health concern that can be identified and diagnosed. From here, your teen will get a treatment plan that will address his individual needs.
  • Contact law enforcement if it becomes necessary. This is not always with the intention of having your teen arrested and held in a juvenile detention center. While this could be beneficial in some cases, law enforcement can also serve as peacekeepers to help your teen in crisis.

If your teen has made serious threats of harming himself, he must be monitored until the correct mental wellness treatment can begin. If this means taking him to the nearest emergency room for monitoring and treatment, then you should not hesitate to take him in. When your teen is in crisis, you shouldn’t hesitate to get him the help he needs.

A residential treatment program or therapeutic boarding school can offer a teen in crisis the secure and supportive environment needed to focus on the right kind of treatment. You don’t need to try and navigate these tense situations with your teen. Getting help for your family as a whole can help you to all heal in a healthy way.

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