Mind Matters — What About Youth Violence?

Violence: While not in the holiday spirit of “peace on earth, good will to all” it is, unfortunately, a timely topic. Just as the first year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school massacre of innocent children approached, another school shooting has occurred in Colorado. In this incident, one young girl was critically wounded before the teenage shooter killed himself.

This fall I attended a conference on “Assessing Violent Behavior” given by Kathryn Seifert, PhD. She reminded her audience that the US is one of the most violent of industrialized nations and that the US incarcerates more people than most industrialized nations—in fact, our violence and incarceration levels are right up there with developing nations and countries at war.

Nevertheless, Seifert acknowledged that under the “right” circumstances any of us can be at risk for violence. For an individual with high coping skills, violence is a last resort. For an individual with low coping skills, violence may be the first choice. Simply put, if the executive function of our “higher” brain, the cortex, is in control, our “lower” primitive brain doesn’t get the best of us. The cortex calms the impulsive limbic system down so that we don’t fly off into a rage or react without considering the consequences.

Seifert, in her book Youth Violence, cites an FBI study of school shooters (O’Toole, 2011). It would seem that these youth, often male and Caucasian, have low coping skills and feel bullied and rejected by peers. Other characteristics in their profiles include abuse and neglect as children; discipline in the home that was “too harsh, too lenient, or inconsistent.” That is, there was not discipline and guidance given lovingly. Families were considered low in warmth and high in conflict. Other characteristics included anger management problems, rigid opinionated thinking, and racial and religious intolerance. There may also be a history of behavior problems, preoccupation with violence and access to firearms and other weapons. While these individuals blame others and refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they also consider themselves entitled and lack empathy.

According to research, there are environmental factors common to “suboptimal development , including youth violence.” (Seifert, p. 104) family stressors include violence at home, parents who have addiction or mental health problems, parents who run the gamut of being either intrusive or uninterested and negligent, the use of corporal punishment.

I recall clients who have come from extremely dysfunctional households who overrode their family dynamics. It was not easy but they chose a different outcome from their past than repeating family history or creating a history for future generations that is even worse.

I consider also Pat Conroy, the author of such books as The Great Santini or The Prince of Tides. Conroy’s father, in fact, was more violent than the fictional depiction of him. Yet Conroy did not follow suit. He carried the wounds of his father’s violence but it appears that he did not inflict them on his children.

The FBI compilation of characteristics of a youthful shooter may help us understand the origins of violence while recognizing that “no one characteristic indicates that a youth will become a school shooter.” (Seifert, p. 39)

Seifert notes that it is the combination of multiple risk factors and the lack of resiliency factors that create the scenario for a youth to be at risk for violent behavior.

And prevention? Seifert says, “Preventing youth violence should be a major objective of families, schools, child and family service organizations, communities, and all levels of government.” The Incredible Years Program and Head Start, which help increase children’s “social and self-control skills” are cost effective violence prevention measures. So too are projects, such as Healthy Families America and the Nurse-Family Partnership and the Parent-Child Home Program, which educate families in parenting skills.

School-based programs such as PATHS, whose goal is social and emotional skill building, can be instrumental in violence prevention as well.

We do not have to re-invent the wheel to prevent youth violence. However, we do need to support and fund the programs that give children and families the foundation for emotional and physical health and well-being.

There are many resources for more information. Here are two: