PARENTING WITH DR. RAMEY: Helping kids understand school violence

Much has been written about the mental health of Nikolas Cruz, the alleged killer of 17 students and adults at a Florida high school. We need to believe that if only someone had done something earlier, this could have been avoided. The uncomfortable reality is that these incidents are impossible to predict.

1. Can we identify these kids earlier and get them help? Absolutely. Cruz's life is a textbook example of a troubled child. He was reportedly diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder, autism and depression. He was ridiculed at school, and his adopted dad passed away at an early age. His mom died in November. Cruz's lawyer called him a "broken human being."

2. It sounds like you're making excuses for his criminal behavior. I'm not. Many youngsters experience horrible childhoods, but very few go into a school and kill other people. That's exactly the dilemma. Adverse childhood experiences increase the likelihood of mental problems, but there is simply no way to predict these behaviors in any individual. Mental disorders do not increase the likelihood of violent behavior.

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3. Does mental health therapy work for these kids? Yes, but their effectiveness depends upon three factors.

First, we need to identify and get help for these youngsters early in their childhood, preferably before age 12. Second, parental involvement is essential. Finally, treatment is often long-term, often requiring months and sometimes years of interventions. In a society where results are expected fast, easy, and cheap, many parents stop treatment too quickly for their kids.

4. Why wasn't Cruz put in a mental hospital? Before the 1960s, it was relatively easy (in fact, too easy) to involuntarily institutionalize an adult. That is not true today. Standards differ among the states, but a mental health professional must determine if a person presents an imminent risk to himself or others, not a potential risk. Even so, involuntary commitments are typically limited to about three days. The number of inpatient treatment facilities kids has decreased substantially over the past 50 years.

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5. What can parents do to help their kids? First, limit media exposure for younger children regarding these terrible events. Frequent viewing of these news stories only increases anxiety among our kids and has no beneficial effects.

Second, engage your children in a conversation about what is happening in their school. I applaud the activism of students who are trying to figure out how to stay alive during the school day, and look to us to help protect them. However, I’d also like those same students to reflect upon the culture of their schools that often results in the ridicule and ostracism of anyone who is different, making it incredibly more difficult for kids with special needs.

Next Week: Getting help for reluctant teens

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