Reducing violence among children

James Garbarino has been studying youth violence around the world for 25 years. His work has focused on boys, who commit 90 percent of all lethal assaults. His basic conclusions about why boys turn to violence may help schools and communities deter it. In his opinion, factors that contribute to violence include:

  • easy access to lethal weapons,
  • difficulties in relationships due to a difficult temperament and negative experiences,
  • maltreatment at an early age,
  • “toxins” in the social environment, and
  • a spiritual void.

Garbarino reports that the percentage of children and teenagers needing professional intervention for mental health and adjustment problems has doubled in the last 25 years. When children see themselves as victimized by their peers and society and when their emotions and judgments become harnessed to an aggressive rage, they can easily make the transition to lethal violence if weapons are readily available. Garbarino reports that this path to violence usually starts from a combination of early difficulties in relationships often due to a difficult temperament and negative experiences. Impulsive, emotionally insensitive, highly active, less intelligent and relatively fearless youngsters can develop patterns of aggression. Children whose temperament and experience put them on the track for problems with aggressive behavior need help from parents and teachers to learn to manage their behavior. Unfortunately, conflicts with parents and teachers can gradually lead to emotional detachment when adults withdraw from these difficult children. Once boys lose their ties with adults in this way, they tend to form aggressive and antisocial peer groups.

Patterns of aggression become predictable

Patterns of aggression start to become predictable by eight years of age. Children identified as aggressive at this age tend to become violent adults. The most common path to aggressive behavior is for temperamentally vulnerable children to be victims of abuse or neglect at home. Both physical abuse and psychological abuse, such as neglect and rejection, contribute to aggression in children. Such children can be hypersensitive to negative responses from other people, but oblivious to positive responses. They tend to respond aggressively when frustrated and believe that aggression is successful. Research reveals that this negative pattern is the strongest link between a child’s being the victim of maltreatment and developing aggressive behavior.

Garbarino believes that these vulnerable children are strongly influenced by the social environment as well. He states that the glorification of violence in the media, the availability of drugs and guns, and large, impersonal high schools negatively affect these children.

Finally, Garbarino believes that a spiritual crisis is at the core of the problem of youth violence. These troubled boys express a sense of meaninglessness. They are cut off from any understanding that life has a higher purpose and they have lost confidence in the ability and motivation of the adults in their lives to protect and care for them.

“Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them” Reaching Today’s Youth Summer 1999.

Published in ERN February 2000 Volume 13 Number 2

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