[Editor’s note: The following story describes the relationship between an Ottawa mother and her son, whom she says is abusive and a potential danger to those around him. Because The Herald does not publish the names of abuse victims, the name of the woman, as well as that of her alleged abuser, have been changed.]

Mary is afraid for herself, for the community and for her son.

“I just know he’s so full of anger, and it comes out in the very worst ways,” she said. “And God help who he takes it out on.” 

Frightened that she has raised a monster, Mary said, she has lived for years in constant fear that her 19-year-old son, John, could hurt her or someone else. She said she is physically and verbally abused by John. He has thrown her into the wall, Mary said, as well as broken things, spit in her face, screamed profanities at her and threatened her.

Worst of all, she said, she never knows what will set him off. 

“He goes from zero to 100, that fast,” Mary said, snapping her fingers quickly. 

After hearing about Friday’s deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — in which a 20-year-old shooter killed 20 young children and six others before turning the gun on himself — the Ottawa mother said, she is horrified her son could follow an equally violent path. She said she isn’t afraid he will harm himself, but rather those within his grasp, like her. 

“Seeing this — he’s just a year older than my child, the perpetrator -— killed his mother first. That hits home,” she said. “I see the rage in my child, who has told me ‘Are you afraid? Are you afraid? You should be.’ He’s told me ‘I will kill you. I will burn our home down.’”

Warning signs

Mental illness has been cited as possibly playing a role in the shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A national conversation has begun not only about gun control, but also about mental health and whether the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history could have been prevented if warning signs had been seen.

Early intervention is key in helping young people with aggressive tendencies, Diane Drake, director of the Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance, 2537 Eisenhower Road, Ottawa, said. 

“So that’s kind of rule No. 1: The earlier you see aggression in children, the better, so that they can get treatment as early as 3 to 5,” Drake, who has addiction and prevention services certification, said. 

Warning signs for a child with intense rage can vary, but typically are different — and more intense — than a regular fit or tantrum, Drake said. 

“Usually a fit or tantrum happens because of a specific stress or something taken away from them or whatever,” Drake said. “But when you’re looking for things that are unprovoked or repeated, and it’s more exaggerated to the point that they are destroying property or hurting another child, that’s when you start to get concerned.”

With young children, the Layton center focuses on developing proper emotional and societal responses to external stimuli through play therapy and parent-child interaction treatment. Through such therapy, a child’s brain begins mapping out the correct responses rather than lashing out with rage, Drake said. 

Using therapy, as well as a full medical work up, data is compiled that helps establish the base cause for the aggression, Drake said, so that it can be managed. A child might be acting out because he or she has been exposed to trauma the parent doesn’t know about, such as abuse from a caretaker or other adult, even a parent. Exposure to certain substances before birth (leading to such issues as fetal alcohol syndrome) or a genetic predisposition to mental illness are on the center’s radar when searching for the root cause of the behavior, Drake said. While studies on the issue have been split, Drake said, she also is a proponent of restricting the types of visual stimuli, such as violent video games and television, for young children. 

“Generally [children] are not willfully wanting to be mean,” she said. “There’s something going on, and they’re not able to regulate their emotions or understand that there are other choices.”

Calling for help

Mary said her son wasn’t always as angry as he is today. He was a happy, sweet child when he was younger. But his environment and a “dysfunctional family” must have taken their toll on the young boy’s mind, his mother said. John’s father had a drug addiction and was physically and mentally abusive to Mary, she said. It was abuse John witnessed nearly all his life, she said, blaming herself for the harsh setting in which her son was raised, and for the man John has become. 

“He’s a product of his environment, I’m sorry to say,” Mary said, crying. “I have failed him miserably.” 

John has not been medically diagnosed with a psychiatric issue, Mary said. He has refused to participate in any type of counseling, she said, and fears he has issues beyond her ability to fix alone.

“He needs help,” Mary said. “And I try. I’ve been trying for more than two years to get him help.”

In fear for her safety, Mary said, she has called the police on her son. Such calls are a last resort for many parents, Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, said, and sometimes are not as effective as seeking the help of a mental health professional. 

“Usually when we get called, it’s that something has just happened at that moment that could either be considered a crime or has created a dangerous situation for someone else,” Butler said. “Could be a situation with a family or friends or in a school setting.”

The professionals at the Kansas Department of Children and Families or those at the Layton center, Butler said, are specially trained to handle such situations. But when it comes to calling law enforcement, there is no right or wrong answer to help deal with a child who has severe behavioral issues, Butler said. If a parent or caregiver feels the need to call for help, then they should, he said. 

“When there’s nobody else available at the time, or the parents really don’t know what to do, often they’ll pick up the phone and call 911,” Butler said. “And usually that’s a situation when there’s an immediate concern or threat.”

Love, grief, abuse

Despite past incidents and the continued threat of abuse, Mary said, she still loves her son and has vowed not to give up on him. It “grieves her soul,” she said, that she hasn’t been able to help her troubled teen. She said she knows her sweet little boy still is inside John somewhere — because she catches glimpses of him from time to time.

“I love my son,” she said. “I don’t want to see anything bad happen.

“I’m scared he’s going to wind up in the hospital or in jail or much, much worse. I hate to see who else has to be impacted right along with him, cause I know it won’t be just him.”

Mary said she attends counseling sessions and church regularly to deal with grief related to her relationship with her son. Unsure about John’s future, she said, her plea is for parents of children like John to act before the situation gets too out of control.