Dangerous Children In A Dangerous World by Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D.

Teen violent crime rates increased 62% from 1988 to 1993, and then declined by just 6% from 1993 through 1997, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). However, the rates for juvenile drug and curfew violations, sex offenses, and simple assaults have continued to increase. The greater the number of risk factors and the fewer the resiliency factors the greater the risk that a youth will commit a violent act. To prevent dangerousness in youth, we need to understand the sources of the problem and intervene appropriately.

Youth with histories of violence often have families that abuse or neglect them, expose them to domestic violence, exhibit untreated psychiatric or substance abuse problems, or are uninvolved in their teens lives. According to OJJDP, children with more than five risk (community, family, individual, school, and peer) and fewer than six protective factors have an 80% chance of committing future acts of violence.

If local community standards favor the use of drugs and firearms, and if there is an acceptance of crime as a way of life, the children of that neighborhood are more likely to use violent means to accomplish their goals. According to Prothrow-Stith (1993), by the time most teens are grown, they have seen 100,000 acts of violence on TV, in video games, and in the movies. Many experts agree that media violence affects children. Vulnerable children are more attracted to and affected by media violence.

The families of violent teens are often aggressive or neglectful, with problem behaviors, weak family bonding, and little warmth and nurturing, and family attitudes that favor drug use and crime. Additionally, violent patterns of responding can be learned in the same way we learn other standards of behavior or language. Children learn what it means to be a woman or a man and how adults behave through watching their parents and other adults. If the adults in their lives solve problems through violence, that becomes the “norm” for expected behavior. Seventy-nine percent of violent teens have witnessed violence between their parents. Violent youth are four times more likely to come from homes with parental violence.

Troubled teens often experience academic failure as early as elementary school. As a result, they lack a commitment to school because it holds no positive rewards for them. Many of these youth are learning disabled or have borderline or low IQs, making success in a traditional school setting difficult, if not impossible–especially if they do not receive needed services. If their social, problem solving and anger management skills are also poor, they may develop a pattern of fighting and bullying other students. Others drop out of school. “Allowing one youth to leave high school for a life of crime and drug abuse costs society $1.7 to $2.3 million” (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999, p. 82).

Success and positive self-worth are universal needs. When children fail to find these at home or in school, they seek out other youths with similar problems and views. In this deviant peer culture, they can become successful in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers. A deviant peer group often reinforces antisocial behaviors and attitudes. Activities are often based on power and control and can escalate into violence. To take them away from that course, a new route to success must be offered. These youth find it difficult to relate to “straight” kids–the peers who previously rejected them–who think, feel, and act differently. Bridging that gap can be a considerable task.

If you look at the reverse of the above risk factors, you will find the conditions that have the potential to protect youths from a violent lifestyle. It gives us hints as to where to proceed with treatment. Children need constant, positive, and nurturing caregivers that set rules, respect a child’s individuality and provide secure attachment in order to grow up emotionally healthy. School success and having prosocial peers can be a protective factor. Having a positive social orientation is also helpful. Higher IQ and resilient temperament can help a child heal from environmental insults and learn to cope more effectively. When there are bonds to supportive prosocial family, teachers, counselors, or other adults, teens have a chance to make choices other than violence. Clearly stated family and community rules and expectations and monitoring of child behavior can be effective in helping children learn to follow social norms. A child who has good social and problem solving skills, moral maturity, and an ability to manage emotions, particularly anger effectively, will have less problems with violence. Children who are curious, enthusiastic, and alert, set goals for themselves, have high self-esteem and internal locus of control will be more resilient. Resiliency factors include nurturing, stable caregiver with consistent, but not harsh, disciplinary techniques, positive activities, school success, and prosocial peers.

There is no one factor that predicts youth violence. It is the combination of more risk factors and fewer resiliency factors that can make the difference between a child that is dangerous and one who is not. Understanding that, allows us to plan interventions to help “at risk” youth.

Check out our Anger Management and Teen Suicide pages.

Dr. Kathryn Seifert has over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. She has authored the CARE and numerous articles. Dr. Seifert has lectured internationally on youth and family violence and trauma. Her research on teen and youth violence risk and school based mental health is extensive. http://careforusall.com

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