After a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, people have questions. They want to know “how did this happen” or “why didn’t we see it coming?” Entire communities, young and old, are affected. Friends and family members of the perpetrator rarely seem to have clear answers. Is there a way to identify potential for violence in individuals? Is there a way we can accurately predict who might be inclined to commit such acts? What do we do as providers, parents and community members to protect our youth? We pose these questions to a forensic psychologist to gain some insight and to garner the strength to move forward in difficult times. I’m Patrick Slifka (Q), Senior Clinical Director for ncgCARE and I have the privilege of interviewing Dr. Stanton Samenow (A) on this topic.
Dr. Stanton Samenow is a renowned and respected forensic psychologist who has a private practice in Alexandria, Virginia. With the late Dr. Samuel Yochelson, he participated in the longest in-depth clinical research-treatment study of offenders that has been conducted in North America. The findings of that study are contained in the three-volume publication The Criminal Personality that he co-authored with Dr. Yochelson. He also is the author of “Inside the Criminal Mind,” Straight Talk about Criminals,” “Before It’s Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble and What Parents Can Do About It,” and “In the Best Interest of the Child: How to Protect Your Child from the Pain of Your Divorce.” Additionally, he has authored numerous articles of professional publications and appeared frequently on national radio and television broadcasts, including “60 Minutes,” “The Phil Donahue Show,” “Good Morning America,” “The CBS Morning News,” “The Today Show,” and “The Larry King Show.”
Q: After mass shootings, or really after any other terrorist event, people want to know why this happened…why didn’t we see this coming. How do you and the psychology field contribute to understanding these events?
A: What has come out is that in virtually every case the perpetrator or perpetrators have had a criminal past prior to their even being involved in a particular cause or organization. So, I think it’s critical to understand the mental makeup of people who do this sort of thing… We can talk about thinking patterns that invariably, if they progress and intensify, lead to injury to others. But really we’re not able to predict based on what we know about thought processes or demographic variables who is actually is going to commit a terrorist act. And again, these are people who are masters of deceit, they often do not become known to anybody until the event that makes the huge impact.
Q: What are we learning about the type of person who does this? Is there a single profile? Are there similarities with other people who commit other types of mass murders?
A: Characteristically, these are people who are huge controllers. It’s control for the sake of control. These are people who see themselves as the hub of a wheel around which everything should revolve. So their image of themselves depends on being in charge – on a sense of uniqueness, that they’re smarter than, they’re better than other people..and that they are really quite special…that they have talents, they have abilities that nobody else could possibly equal. These are people who have been arrested in most cases – or have been arrestable, but have gotten away with a lot of things. Their ultimate control is not only to take the lives of others but, then when you are losing control of your own destiny and life, you take your own life. So, suicide is right in line with this control-for-the-sake-of-control, right down to the end.
Q: Is there any research or any speculation about the role and association with childhood trauma? What’s the etiology?
A: There are unfortunately thousands, tens of thousands of children who are mistreated, abused if you will – physically, psychologically, sexually – and they do have challenges and problems, no question about it. But only the tiniest, tiniest percentage – no one really knows what that is – becomes a violent offender. But having said that, it’s highly unlikely that somebody is going to shoot a bunch of people after being a law-abiding citizen and a very responsible person up until the time he did it. One thing to note is that many of the perpetrators of mass violence embrace a cause…but that cause, whatever it is, did not make them the way they are. People who have some of the patterns that we’ve been talking about – they embrace a cause and use that cause as a vehicle for their criminality. These individuals had a pattern of criminality before they ever embraced the “cause.”
Q: I think about the school setting as a place where we could do a lot of good, a lot of training. What are some of the things, if you can speak to this, that we might do – as teachers, parents, coaches, providers – to recognize the child who is moving in the direction of “high risk” for committing a terrible crime like we’ve been talking about?
A: There are kids who show patterns…and I would underscore the word “patterns,” not a one- time fist fight on the playground or someone who swipes another kid’s lunch, but exhibits patterns that expand and intensify over time…and these should be of concern. When you have a child who virtually never takes responsibility…that is a red flag. Another flag is the child who is constantly trying to take the easy way out…no matter what it is - whether it’s homework or, after joining an organization, he quits after a short time because he’s not getting the recognition he thinks he deserves. The key is we’re talking about “patterns” of behavior. I’ve interviewed kids who, at the age of ten…maybe earlier, they’ve dropped out of scouts, they’ve dropped out of church groups, they’ve dropped out of music lessons. In a way, they’ve dropped out of their families because they don’t’ want to do anything their family wants them to do. At school, they occupy a chair but they’re not really a member of the community there and it’s always “how do I get over on people?” “how do I get by people? Any means to an end. They become very good at deceit. The question is, “What is your own purpose?” In this case, it’s for the kid to build himself up – to himself and others as he’s more clever, he can get over on people, he can deceive them, he can overcome them, whatever it takes.
These are kids, and this another hallmark – they have very unrealistic expectations of other people and of themselves. All of us have expectations that turn out to be unrealistic…that’s true. But how do we behave when those expectations are not met? These are kids who will take it out on others, who will blame people.
Q: What are things you can suggest for providers…what to look for, a particular way to assess and treat these youth and families so that the kids actually have a chance to be more empathic, to be less impulsive, to change their direction and to succeed?
A: The first thing you do is listen and see what the parent has to say. If you’re hearing about a kid who’s a discipline problem and isn’t doing well in school, you might ask about some of these, what I’m calling, thinking patterns that show themselves in behavior. You might say, “Tell me…when “Douglas” is told that he’s done something wrong or if he’s caught cheating on a test at school, how does he handle it? Has “Douglas” ever taken anything from you or anybody in the family or something’s been missing and you think he’s taken it. How does “Douglas” act when you or a teacher try to talk to him about a fight that he’s been in?” Kind of trying to get to these patterns. There’s some relief to parents if the provider can actually elicit some of this stuff which either the parent isn’t really thinking about or is dismissing the significance of…and I can probably go down a list of things that you could ask about after you listen. The first thing is to assess the kid through the parent and to let that person know that you understand what he or she is going through.
Q: In addition to working with parents, we need to connect with the school system, other supports…we need a lot of different input and data from multiple sources.
A: Oh, absolutely…since this is a kid who is very good at dividing and conquering. These are kids who really can fool other people. So, certainly you would want to be working with or have contact with the school teacher…on occasion, the school counselor. And if there are others that this child is involved with on a regular basis…maybe even a grandparent – if that grandparent has a lot to do with the child.
Q: What’s your sense of how these events have impacted our communities and our culture?
A: Well, with the victims – I mean there’s a ripple effect in the victims…it’s huge. I mean it isn’t only, obviously, the direct victims – the people who were killed or shot and their families, but it is the community at large. A real challenge, I think, is what do you tell your own kids? It’s very hard for kids not to be exposed to this… So, for parents to be really aware of what their kids are talking about, what they’re hearing, and to try to talk to them about what really is true…that life goes on and millions of children are going to school…and they are fine. And that there are people in our society who are doing their best to. protect us…to try to communicate, despite what they’re hearing, that they’re safe. And that there are people…their teachers, their parents, law enforcement – a lot of people are working to keep them safe. That’s a challenge for people to communicate to children who are showing apprehension, but it’s essential. It’s trying to give a kid perspective.
About the Author:
J. Patrick Slifka is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has provided mental health and addiction treatment in the state of Virginia for over 29 years. His clinical experience includes the delivery of dual diagnosis services in residential, outpatient and community-based settings. Currently he serves as the Senior Clinical Director for ncgCARE and is the lead trainer for the agency. Mr. Slifka received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from Hampden-Sydney College in 1987 and a Master of Social Work Degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1998. Mr. Slifka has also received a significant amount of post-graduate training on dual diagnosis treatment, sex offender treatment, motivational interviewing, clinical supervision, inhalant abuse, and professional leadership development. He is a Certified Family Trauma Professional and a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor. He has conducted over 300 statewide trainings to more than 4000 public and private mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice professionals and is part of NASW-VA’s professional training team. He is a former member of the Board of Directors for Chesterfield County’s Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) and is the past Chairman for the SAFE’s Inhalant and PULP (Proper Use of Legal Products) Task Forces.