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One Answer To Teenage Violence - Heading Off Trouble Right From the Start

by Anita Gurian, PhD


Violence in school continues to make headlines. In a number of schools students don't feel secure and parents are as worried about safety as they are about academics. The recent release (July, 2006) of the journals and other documents of the two teenagers in Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 provides clues as to what went on in the minds of these teenagers before they went on a killing spree.

Might the killings have been avoided if action had been taken earlier? How can we head off trouble and prevent the epidemic of violence from proliferating? Quick fixes like security guards, locker searches and metal detectors are not the answers. School programs such as Head Start, conflict resolution, and after-school activities are certainly worthy but can't do the whole job. Programs urging parents to be vigilant about movies, television programs and video games with violent themes and about their children's accessibility to guns are also helpful. But preventing violence depends on understanding where and when it originates. Some of the teenagers involved in the recent killing episodes showed violent tendencies much earlier in their lives.

What does the research tell us?

Violent or aggressive behavior is learned early in life. Four to l0% of children and adolescents have severe conduct problems and although this does not represent a large number of children, it is the children in this group who are at increased risk for juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. In fact, it is rare for an antisocial adult who commits criminal acts to have experienced the onset in adulthood; the disorder almost always originates in childhood. Early oppositional and aggressive behaviors escalate over time to more serious antisocial behavior. This is the typical pathway of a child whose conduct problems start early in life:

"The preschooler who throws temper tantrums and defies his parents is described by his teachers as oppositional and defiant. He becomes the child who initiates fights with his peers, lies and steals. Later he vandalizes school property, tortures animals and sets fires. As an adolescent, he forces sex on acquaintances and is truant. As an adult he is likely to abuse his partner and his children."

Why? There is no simple answer to the question of what causes a young child to have conduct problems. The trouble may originate on a number of levels—in the child, the family, the larger community. Here's what we know from the research about the factors that place a young child at risk for having conduct problems:

Within the child: individual temperament, reading deficits and cognitive delays, deviant peer group.

Within the family: poverty, low parental education, high levels of stress, parental psychiatric illness, inconsistent and harsh discipline, family history of criminal behavior and substance abuse, marital discord, antisocial values.

Within the community: community violence and lack of accessibility to resources

Where should intervention start? At the beginning, with very young children before they enter school. Training parents of very young children has proved to be the most promising of the interventions and programs are currently taking place around the country. The aim of these programs is to prevent conduct problems and to head off complications, such as academic failure and peer rejection. The parent training approach attempts to first change the family context in families at risk and teaches parents strategies based on social learning principles. Parents are taught to identify, define, observe and monitor their children's behavior so that it can be targeted for change.

Program basics

Parents learn to praise and reward children's prosocial behaviors and provide consequences (e.g., time-out) for inappropriate and noncompliant behavior. They learn parenting skills such as how to:

  • play with a child
  • help a child learn
  • prepare a child for school
  • use praise and encouragement
  • set limits effectively
  • handle misbehavior
  • access community resources and work with teachers and schools

In addition parents are encouraged to anticipate and solve problems so that they can prevent and manage future problems with their children on their own. Programs for younger children typically include an additional emphasis on parent-child play experiences where positive parent-child interactions are promoted, to set the stage for the implementation of positive parenting strategies.

What are the ingredients of a prevention program for parents?

All of the different risk factors need to be taken into account in the design of a prevention program. For example, many parents of children at risk are single, highly stressed, poor and isolated. Special measures need to be taken to engage such parents; this might involve providing transportation, child care and other incentives to insure participation; designing written materials and homework assignments to match the educational level of the parents and providing parent training in group settings as a support system for isolated parents.

Programs that are successful in improving child management techniques are likely to have enormous public health implications. In the long run these programs could help to decrease juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and school dropout and ultimately to keep youngsters safe.

References and Related Books

Miller, L S (1998)
Preventive intervention for preschoolers at risk for Conduct Disorders.
In Briesmeister, J, Shaffer, C, eds.
Handbook of Parent Training: Parents as Co-Therapists for Children's Behavior Problems, 2nd Ed.
Crocket, Texas: Publications Development Co. 177–201.

Miller, LS (1994)
Preventive interventions for conduct disorders: A review. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Issue on Disruptive Disorders. 3:405–419.

Patterson, G.R., Reid, J.B., Dishion, T.J. (1992).
Antisocial Boys. Eugene, OR, Castalia.

Wasserman, G, Miller, LS. (1998).
The prevention of serious and violent juvenile offending. In Loeber, R, Farrington, D. (eds.) Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions
Sage Publications. 197–247.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1998).
Preventing conduct problems in Head Start children: Strengthening parenting competencies.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 715–730.