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School Shootings May Offer Times to Talk With Teens

As tragic as school shootings like the May 20 Atlanta incident are, a University of Georgia expert says parents and other adults who work with teen-agers can find a silver lining.

"Parents can take it as an opportunity to start talking with, and listening to, their teens," said Don Bower, an associate professor of children, youth and families with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Even that good side, he said, can turn ugly if parents approach it wrong.

"Take the time to sit down and talk with them, not to them," he said. "Stifle the urge to lecture. Just try to get them to help you understand what's going on in their lives. Ask them what their friends are saying, and understand that that is likely what your child is thinking as well."

Bower specializes in parenting education, adolescent development and at-risk youth. He urges parents and other adults to search with their teens for ways to prevent such violent outbreaks.

"The immediate tendency is to look for people or situations to blame," he said. "But it's more constructive to talk about the responsibility all of us share -- individuals, families and communities -- to see that this sort of thing doesn't happen again."

Get Teens to Open Up

Bower said parents who don't already have an open, communicative relationship with their teen-age children, though, shouldn't expect that to suddenly change.

"Many teens will continue to clam up," Bower said. "Some will say some outlandish things to test their parents."

Teens often won't open up with parents out of fear of being punished or judged. "They may talk more openly with grandparents, neighbors, teachers and other trusted adults," he said.

Opening lines of communication is more than talking and listening. "Part of it is spending time together," he said. "It's initiating opportunities that don't just happen with today's hectic schedules."

No Simple Answers

Bower said there isn't a simple way to prevent another school shooting. But being able to talk with teens and listen to their problems is part of the answer.

"Teens generally know the students who are more likely to act out in violent ways," Bower said. "But they can't tell, any more than anyone else, which ones will actually go over the edge. Teens are also sensitive about turning in friends for what may be nothing."

Fellow students may be less likely than adults to offer the help troubled students need.

"They don't want to be perceived as friends to kids who are less popular," he said. "A few may be sufficiently empathic that they try to befriend them. But most don't. That's a skill, however, that parents and teachers can model."

Time With Caring Adults

Schools and families today, he said, often have fewer adults giving concentrated time to children. And adults are vital in children's lives.

"It's well documented that children with caring adults more actively involved in their lives do much better than kids who have less of that," Bower said.

But school violence isn't an issue just for schools. "We know that violence is a learned response," he said. "Children learn how to solve their problems through a great many ways in our society."

Lower Risk of Shootings

Despite all the media coverage of the shootings, Bower said, the rate of school violence is actually down. And the fast-approaching summer break will help cool down the perception and the risk of more shootings.

"The end of the school year is a stressful time," he said. "And there's a pattern of copycat behaviors -- troubled kids see the notoriety others get, and they're tempted to act out those behaviors."

With school out for the summer, media coverage will subside. And school systems are now much more aware of potential problems. Bower said he expects the risks will be much lower when children return to school in the fall.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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