By Glenn Peters, Ph.D.

It is clear that our society is in the midst of a crisis. The crisis concerns the violence among our youth. In his book "Lost Boys" James Garbarino comments that the youth homicide rate has risen. The period of greatest acceleration was from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s when the youth homicide rate increased by 168% in our society.

In order to solve a problem, we first need to understand that problem. Unfortunately, there are multiple factors that are responsible for violence among our youth. You just can¹t nail it down to one or two factors that lead to this or that specific act of violence. For example, it is way too simplistic to say that this child would not have been violent if only you had given him more attention when he was six years old. In understanding violence we need to go beyond blaming, we need to realistically take into account what is happening in the lives of these children that go on to become murderers. Researchers have studied violent youth and observe that several patterns seem to highly correlate with violence among kids. One such researcher is James Garbarino who for many years has interviewed and studied many kids that have turned violent. In his book, Dr. Garbarino writes about several relevant risk factors that appear very related to youth violence.

One important risk factor that appears to relate to violent youth is their difficulties in attachment. A lot of these violent kids really seem to have fundamental disruptions in their history of attachment and connection to deeply caring and loving caretakers. Under their protective shells of defensiveness and aggression, many of these kids suffer from toxic shame whereby they feel fundamentally disgraced, intrinsically worthless and profoundly humiliated. Kids that have a strong, positive intact sense of self don¹t talk about destroying society and themselves. These are the kids that were neglected, rejected, emotionally and/or physically abused, and often suffered from the lack of a strong male father figure. These kids have learned to spill their hurt in the world in the form of violent behavior. These are the kids that are lost; they are not the popular kids that our society praises as successful. We now know from information on the circumstances of Columbine that the violent adolescent killers felt deeply alienated from and rejected by the "popular" kids at school. They isolated themselves and carried with them virulent fantasies of revenge that they eventually acted out. The revenge fantasies of the two Columbine teens built up over years of hurt, before they finally exploded into action.

Another risk factor that shows itself early is a pattern of aggressive behaviors early in life. It is understood that a longer historical pattern of aggressive behavior has a stronger chance to build up and interfere more with normal development. In the DSM IV, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, this early pattern of aggressive behaviors is categorized as Conduct Disorder, Childhood Onset. These are kids that lack empathy and caring for others. They are abusive to animals in a similar way to how they felt physically or emotionally abused. These are kids that often turn to the dark side, to negative peer groups because the negative peers are more interesting, familiar and accessible to them than more positive peers and adults. They feel alienated from more normal mainstream groups, and are not as engaged in positive social group interactions. These negative peer groups often get highly involved in drugs, as drugs are another important risk factor.

James Garbarino conceptualizes how the particular social context influences the lethality of aggressive behavior for these aggressive kids.

  1. An early pattern of bad-aggressive behaviors that are identified and treated early. These are kids that are helped, in an environment where aggressive kids are identified early and influenced into positive directions.
  2. A benign social environment where an early pattern of bad-aggressive behavior gets played out with less danger. These are societies where there are less gangs, guns and drugs for these aggressive kids to get involved with. For example, Canadian kids get into fights too, but their youth homicide rate is less than a quarter of ours.
  3. An early pattern of bad-aggressive behaviors that gets played out in fertile ground and grows into chronic violence, delinquency. This is the worse case scenario, where the particular environment promotes more lethal forms of aggression through promoting the use of gangs, guns and drugs.
Another risk factor is a destroyed future orientation. A lot of these violent kids have terminal thinking as they often see themselves not living beyond 20. Therefore in their mind, life is short and since they have nothing to live for, why not resort to violence to redress their sense of injustice. These are kids that do not see what meaning can be learned from their hard knocks. They do not see how to make something good out of their lives. They have tunnel vision and don¹t see the constructive options and resources that can help. We can see the opposite, positive example, in kids who were in gangs and using drugs but later turn away from these negative behaviors and become a positive influence on their friends and family members. These are kids that sought out and were influenced by the positive resources in their lives before it was too late.

Violence in the media is certainly another factor that affects these violent kids. Some of the latest research shows that 15% of violence is attributable to the media. This is similar to the correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer. It is not that kids will go out and shoot someone because they saw the movie "Natural Born Killers" but rather that kids that are vulnerable and do not have positive attachments in their lives, are more prone to be affected by the violent media. The violent media to these violent kids can be compared to the way an asthmatic is impacted by pollution.

The solution to this youth violence is easy to talk about but hard to deliver. It means taking off our blinders and putting into effect an early investment on material, emotional and spiritual levels. Our job here is to be human and teach our children to be human. We need to make sure that every child has the birthright to unconditional love, the right to be hugged, listened to, and be disciplined in a constructive manner. In other words, all parents need to deliver the basic ingredients of positive attachment. We have to re-parent every child and parent who has not learned to make a positive attachment. We need to pressure the media to put on more "good shows" of parents helping kids and of kids helping kids. We need to develop more mentoring programs and peer counseling programs. We need to start with early identification and intervention programs for high-risk kids and high-risk families. The earlier these program start in the lives of these high-risk kids the better the chances of more positively influencing their development. Some of these efforts are already occurring but we all know that a lot more needs to be done.

Dr. Glenn Peters is a licensed psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents. His private practice is in the Glendale area. He can be reached at (818) 475-2666.