Behaviour

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Your child is not Adam Lanza

A week ago, a crime too awful to contemplate took place in the small town of Newtown in Connecticut in the US.

Although it may be very far from New Zealand's shores, the horror of the actions by Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old man who shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook School have reverberated around the world.

Lanza killed his mother, before driving to the school where he shot his way in and seemingly randomly massacred children. He then killed himself.

There was no note, no explanation and all that is left is deafening silence when people ask "What could possibly drive a person to kill innocent children? Why did Adam Lanza do this? What went wrong?"

The only people who can shed any real light on Lanza's actions are dead and media reports from friends of family describing his mother as "quiet and sociable" and Adam as "shy and quiet" are interspersed with clips of grieving parents and snapshots of little children, who are now dead.

The silence has instead been filled with speculation, about Lanza's mental health, about his childhood and how he was raised. What caused him to do this?

As empathetic beings we often put ourselves in  the shoes of others - we can imagine the pain of the parent's who lost their child, but we can also imagine the other side, the pain and confusion of being the parent of the perpetrator.

"What went wrong? How was he raised?" and deep within every parent's heart the invariable comparison "Would/ could my child ever be capable of doing such a thing?"

A post by Liza Long, a blogger and single mother of four entitled "I am Adam Lanza's mother" caused an Internet frenzy and sparked a lot of debate this week.

In her piece Long describes how she is concerned about the mental state of her son, Michael.

She shares in detail how scared she is of her son and how she has battled to get him the help he needs.

In response, another blogger, Sarah Kendzior accused her of being vindictive and writing "cruel posts about her children".

The two then made up and issued a joint statement about the importance of a "respectful conversation on mental health".

Hanna Rosin raises a very important point in her commentary on the whole debacle when it comes to the fact that Long named her son, with little to no regard as to how her blog may impact on his future.

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More importantly though, Long admits she doesn't actually know what is wrong with her son.

"Autism spectrum, ADHD, Opposition Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counsellors and teachers and school administrators," she says.

Long doesn't mention a psychologist, or psychiatrist, but says her son has been on a "slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals".

Get professional help

Christchurch child psychologist, Cherin Selim, who specialises in behavioural difficulties, says before parents jump to the conclusion that their child's problems could lead them to becoming dangerous is to realise that many behavioural problems are normal at certain developmental stages.

"I think it is really important for parents to look at the child's age because some behavioural difficulties are developmental. So if it is causing significant impairment to the family, like they are scared to go out with the child, or if their school is complaining, then they do need to seek professional help," she says.

Selim says that in addition to scaring parents, stories like Lanza's have two other effects:

"One is that the perpetrator is glorified in many ways and so children who are potentially going down that track of committing some kind of crime can see that and can reinforce their behaviour and the other side of that is that parents really panic or they look at their child and they think 'my child is showing X,Y and Z are they going to turn into this?'"

If you are concerned, Selim says the earlier you look for help, the better. Fortunately in New Zealand, there are many, many services available to help.

"There are so many community services available where there is no cost to parents, yet parents just aren't accessing them," says Selim.

The first port of call would be a family's GP, who would be able to advise parents of what services are available in their area.

A new government initiative launched by the Ministry of Social Development will make information even more accessible to parents too.

A new contestable fund to improve mental health information for parents, families and friends is set to help parents identify any problems sooner.

"We need better information to those closest to young people, who are often the first to notice signs of mental health problems, but don't always know when to be concerned and what to do," said Social Development minister, Paula Bennett.

The Information for Parents, Families and Friends fund allocates one million dollars over four years to getting better information about youth mental illness for families.

"Many people we have talking to say families find it hard to know whether there is a problem, what is and then what support the young person needs," she says.

"What we are hearing from parents is that they want to know when behaviour is just normal teenage angst and moodiness and when it is something more serious."

The fund is available to community organisations capable of developing and implementing a comprehensive approach on youth mental health issues.

In the case of the Connecticut shooting, Adam Lanza's motive might never be known; perhaps mental health support might have helped him.

Fortunately in New Zealand, there are services available for parents who are concerned about their children, or who are battling with their child's behavioural problems.

All you have to do is ask and as Hanna Rosin wisely suggests, not share all the details with the world wide web.

- Essential Mums

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