Who Am I? The Question of Youth Violence

In violence we forget who we are,” wrote American novelist and literary critic Mary McCarthy in 1961. Her indictment was aimed at writers who had come to depend heavily on “sensation” and had “lost interest in the social,” but it has become all the more relevant in a world where a focus on the sensational has escaped from fiction to permeate real life. And sadly, concern about losing oneself in violence has become as relevant to children as it has always been to adults. Almost half a century after McCarthy wrote, there is reason to believe that far too many young people—despite any number of profile pages they may have on such social networking sites as Facebook, MySpace or Bebo—may not be entirely sure of their identity.

Children are more aggressive and grow up more likely to become involved in violence—either as a victimizer or as a victim—if they witness violent acts. The home is the most fertile breeding place for this situation.”

American Psychological Association, “Is Youth Violence Just Another Fact of Life?” (1996)

Though simple extrapolations from youth violence statistics are hazardous to make, news reports across the globe, even just within the last two years, nevertheless paint a picture that is unsettling to many.

Violent Youth Crime Up a Third,” asserted a January 2008 headline in the online edition of the U.K.’s Telegraph. Beneath this header followed statistics illustrating that between 2003 and 2006 the number of violent crimes committed by British youth increased by 37 percent. And there is no shortage of subsequent news items implying that the problem persists. A cursory search of British news reports published in 2008 and 2009 unearths the following:

January 2, 2008: A father of two, 52-year-old Ron Sharples, dies after being assaulted by a group of youths while out looking for the family dog.

January 16, 2008: A British court finds three teens guilty of murdering 47-year-old Garry Newlove. The father of three had stepped out of his home to speak to a group of teenagers who, he believed, had been vandalizing his wife’s car. The teens kicked him to death.

April 19, 2008: Three young men (two of whom are teens) are sentenced to life in prison for stamping another 47-year-old father of three, Mark Witherall, to death after breaking into his house in Whitstable, Kent.

May 21, 2009: A 16-year-old is found guilty of killing 68-year-old George Thornley during a botched burglary of the older man’s home. The teen attacked Thornley with a rubber mallet and a knife.

Girl Trouble

Of course, the United Kingdom is not the only nation regularly reporting violence among teens, and perhaps surprisingly, males are not the only perpetrators. According to American FBI figures, in 1996 girls accounted for 15 percent of all violent juvenile arrests in the United States. And by 2002, 24 percent of juveniles arrested for aggravated assault were girls, as were 32 percent of those apprehended for lesser assaults.

Does this mean the nature of females is changing? Are girls becoming as violent as boys? In their 2007 paper, “Patriarchy Matters,” researchers Lyn Mikel Brown, Meda Chesney-Lind and Nan Stein propose that “steep increases in girls’ arrests are not the product of girls becoming more like boys. Instead, forms of girls’ minor violence that were once ignored are now being criminalized.”

While girls may not be completely abandoning their nature—whatever one might consider that to be—it may be difficult for some to believe that the full increase in female juvenile arrests is attributable solely to “minor violence” becoming criminalized. 

When in the past would (or should) the following incidents have been considered minor violence?

January 14, 2008: In West Philadelphia, 10 girls attack two other female teens who are waiting for a school bus. Using what is either a box cutter or a straight-edge razor, the attackers slash 15-year-old Shakia West, severely wounding her in the face.

February 4, 2008: In Halifax, Nova Scotia, two teenage girls are sentenced for a crime they committed the previous summer. Apparently, using metal table legs as clubs, the girls waylaid a 66-year-old woman as she walked through Halifax Common and beat her repeatedly, leaving her with a broken rib and severe bruising.

March 30, 2008: 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay is beaten unconscious by six other teen girls who videotape the attack, intending to post it on YouTube. Lindsay requires hospitalization and suffers blurred vision and hearing loss, among other injuries.

July 14, 2009: A girl gang in Washington, D.C., hunts down a girl from a rival gang to retaliate for alleged MySpace postings. The attackers carry hammers, sticks and other weapons, swinging them as they approach the victim, who is later hospitalized with multiple stab wounds.

July 29, 2009: 17-year-old Alexis Harris dies after being stabbed by another girl during an argument on a basketball court in Cleveland, Ohio.

If Brown, Chesney-Lind and Stein are correct and such examples have always been common among girls, one can only muse that it’s about time such behavior became criminalized. However, if such examples have not been as common as they are now, what has changed? Perhaps, as McCarthy noted, the violent simply forget who they are. But why have so many teens forgotten who they are? Are some children just born with more aggressive traits?

There is no gene for violence,” says the American Psychological Association’s website; “violence is a learned behavior, and it is often learned in the home or the community from parents, family members, or friends.”

Weighing the Risks

Researchers have noted that the factors leading to youth violence are so complex that multiple theories are needed to account for the many forms in which it occurs. Patterns leading to school shootings, for instance, differ in important ways from those leading to gang violence, so protective interventions would need to cover a wide range of behaviors. On the negative side of the equation, factors thought to contribute to aggression include exposure to violence, whether community, media or intrafamilial violence; poor family, peer and community relationships; and lower levels of moral and abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills. In addition, mental disorders and biological factors (including brain damage and other abnormalities) come into play.

A family history of criminal behavior and substance abuse, family management problems, family conflict, and parental attitudes favorable toward crime and substance abuse have been linked with youth violence.”

Javad H. Kashani et al., “Youth Violence: Psychosocial Risk Factors, Treatment, Prevention, and Recommendations” in Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (Winter 1999)

However, it is important to note that while large numbers of teens may be exposed to various combinations of any or all of these factors, they do not all become violent. Vincent Ramos, former chief psychologist and director of clinical services at a southeastern U.S. facility for adjudicated youth, says some kids resist the effects of these factors better than others. “The fact is, we cannot determine risk with any significant reliability,” he told Vision. “More youth than not are resilient and are capable of surviving the worst of conditions without becoming criminals or resorting to violence. For instance, the fact that most of the school-shooting subjects were loners and were not connected to a community does not mean that all subjects with the same characteristics will turn to violence. Most do not. It is rare when they do, in fact.”

In placing the emphasis on resilience, Ramos presents the perspective of a “strength-based” approach to the problem of teen violence rather than a “risk-focused” approach. In a 2008 report funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Nancy Guerra and Catherine Bradshaw explain: “From [a strength-based] perspective, successful development is viewed not as the absence of risk behavior but as the presence of positive attributes that enable youth to reach their full potential as productive and engaged adults.”

In reviewing the existing body of research focusing on these positive attributes, Guerra and Bradshaw identified five “core competencies” that affect positive youth development. Their colleagues—Terri Sullivan, Albert Farrell, Amie Bettencourt and Sarah Helms—point out that these competencies also “play a central role in many theories of childhood aggression and youth violence.”

These protective core competencies include a positive sense of self, self-control, decision-making skills, a moral system of belief, and prosocial connectedness. “Although these competencies clearly are interconnected,” acknowledge the researchers, “each has received substantial attention in its own right.” They have indeed. In fact, anyone who is familiar with resilience studies will immediately pick up on the fact that the core competencies that protect against childhood aggression and youth violence look a lot like the traits that have been found to protect against the effects of trauma.

A central premise of Guerra and Bradshaw’s research is that “high levels of these competencies provide a marker for positive youth development, and low levels of these competencies increase the likelihood of adolescent risk behavior.” Clearly parents are in the best position to encourage a child’s development of core competencies from infancy onward. However, success in doing so requires that parents understand how competency in these areas is expressed. It also requires that they take an active, intentional role in teaching the related skills. But what are these skills and how do parents teach them on a practical level?

Know Thyself

The first competency, a positive sense of self, includes a realistic self-awareness marked by the ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and weaknesses, but also, say Guerra and Bradshaw, by “a more refined and integrated conceptualization of the self that lays the groundwork for one’s future life course. ‘Who I am’ sets the stage for the ‘Who I could become’—providing hopefulness, direction, and a sense of purpose.” McCarthy’s 1961 words reverberate: “In violence, we forget who we are.”

Self-control is an important skill for all children to learn. It refers to having power or control over one’s own actions. It also means that an individual knows right from wrong.”

National Association of School Psychologists, “Teachintg Young Children Self-Control Skills” (2002)

How do children gain a realistic self-awareness? The foundations are laid even in infancy, as caretakers respond with warmth and affection to a child’s basic physical and emotional needs. It expands during the toddler stage, as parents point out the connection between the child’s actions and their consequences. Certainly parents must point out the negative consequences of a child’s negative actions. But it’s important to reinforce positive actions by pointing out their positive consequences as well. The sense of self-mastery children gain as they reap the rewards of doing well also breeds authentic self-esteem

Self-awareness is tied closely to the self-regulation skills that are precursors to the development of the next core competency: self-control. While even young children are capable of regulating certain aspects of their behavior, especially in response to reward and correction, personal management of this skill increases over time as the standards they are taught become internalized. Self-control—the ability to manage behavioral and emotional reactions appropriately—is a critical indicator of positive adjustment for children because of its importance in setting and reaching goals throughout a person’s lifetime.

As parents interact socially with infants and respond consistently to their needs, infants learn to distinguish between important and unimportant stimuli, a skill that leads to the ability to predict what is likely to happen next after a particular action.

Once they can do this, the groundwork is laid for the development of problem-solving skills. A toddler discovers that a round block won’t go into a triangular hole, but it will go into a round hole. If he pulls himself up to a standing position he can reach interesting things that couldn’t be reached while crawling. At this stage children may also begin to try socially unacceptable forms of problem-solving. To obtain a toy they want, they may forcefully take it from another child. “I want it . . . he has it . . . I take it . . . problem solved!”

This is where adults, who ideally are present and engaged, would actively teach the child that certain actions are unacceptable. Part of this vital lesson includes teaching youngsters how to recognize the feelings that precede unacceptable behavior (in this case, wanting something that someone else has) and then replacing automatic actions with those that are less automatic. (Instead of taking it, I find another toy to play with until the other child is finished playing with that one.) While it takes time for these self-regulation skills to develop into mature self-control, children do not internalize them automatically. They require the active influence of adult figures within their so-called attachment network—ideally their parents.

Facing Choices

The third competency, effective decision-making skills, also develops with time and practice and must be actively taught. By adolescence, abstract reasoning skills should be sophisticated enough that a child is able to accurately predict outcomes and imagine consequences. However, because teens are less experienced at assessing the real harm in negative consequences, parents must still regularly discuss decisions with them to help them assess potential risks and outcomes.

In general,” explain Guerra and Bradshaw, “when compared with adults, adolescents overestimate risk.” Nevertheless, “perceived benefits, as opposed to risks, are more likely to drive [teens’] decisions.” While the most successful decision-makers prefer to avoid dangerous risks completely rather than face choices that may require weighing significant risks against benefits, most teens still need a parent’s help in decision-making until there is clear evidence that they have succeeded in developing mature judgment.

Sullivan, Farrell, Bettencourt and Helms further note that stark differences have been found between the decision-making processes of aggressive teens versus their nonaggressive counterparts. Aggressive youths use different information and goals in decision-making and are affected by different biases, “including selectively attending to negative social cues, attributing hostile intent to these cues, and prioritizing revenge-based versus prosocial goals in addressing these situations.”

On the other hand, nonaggressive youths were able to use social skills to handle conflict, and they were less likely to assume that negative social cues stemmed from purposefully hostile intentions. Such positive patterns of thinking and behavior can be gradually instilled throughout childhood as parents and children share their daily experiences and discuss their social interactions, encouraging healthier views of and responses to conflict.

Healthier views and responses would, of course, be based on the fourth core competency, a moral system of belief. From a research perspective, a moral system of belief involves the use of empathy and perspective-taking to develop deeply held judgments about issues such as harm, fairness and integrity. Even infants show a certain level of moral awareness, such as empathic distress and pleasure in response to the feelings of others. But a more concrete system of belief gradually emerges with the help of the crucial social interaction children need to experience during development. And again, parents should ideally be the key providers of this interaction through frequent conversation as well as by example.

Mirroring,” in fact, is one of the first learning tools available to children. Infants imitate significant others within the family and community cultures, and each mirroring episode makes a particular neural connection that much stronger. If a child’s role models—particularly those with whom he or she most strongly identifies—are compassionate caretakers who exhibit integrity, the standards they model and teach form the basis for the child’s moral beliefs. In contrast, when caretakers model negligence, anger or violence, children are more likely to become aggressive and to consider violence an appropriate response when they are angry.

The Right Connections

All of this underscores the importance of the final competency offered by Guerra and Bradshaw, prosocial connectedness, which could be considered foundational to the four that precede it. Prosocial connectedness refers to positive social engagement between the child and significant others across a range of social venues. In particular, secure attachment and family support are known to exert a protective influence against the development of aggression in children.

It should come as no surprise that children learn best from people with whom they have secure emotional connections. Neuroscientists have demonstrated what psychologists, parents, theologians and teachers have known all along: strong family relationships and good role models contribute to the formation of the brain, mind, personality and character. Sullivan and her colleagues underscore that secure attachment is associated with self-regulation, empathy, and moral and emotional development “from infancy through adulthood.” Genetically, humans are social beings, and from the first bonds that form between infants and caregivers, behavior is highly influenced by social connections.

Early attachments lead to internal working models of social relationships that serve as preliminary rules to guide both behavior and feelings in social interactions,” Guerra comments. The effects of these attachments on future potentially risky behavior are pervasive and are later supplemented by connections with peer groups, siblings, adults outside the family—and now even those in online social networks. Of course, other community factors such as poverty and high crime rates may also affect teen aggression. However, Sullivan’s team points out that “microsystem connections such as family relationship characteristics may exert a protective influence even for youth at risk of violence perpetration due to community-level factors.”

In other words, the engaged and supportive family relationships that instill a positive identity in children are of critical importance in youth violence prevention.

With this in mind, and because there is no gene for violence, a society with a violent youth culture must ask some searching questions. Do we as parents know who we are? Do we spend enough time engaging positively and constructively with our children to pass this understanding along? Do our children know who they are?

If they don’t, perhaps we as parents are failing them. And a society that fails its children fails itself.