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Adolescent
Violence

 

 

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Page Contents: Teenage Violence / The Nature of Adolescence / Adolescent Problems (Failed Communication, Lack of “Normality,” Wealth) / Denial and Lies / Clinical Diagnoses / The Issue of Violent Entertainment / Should We Blame Guns?

 

Adolescent
 
Violence

INCIDENTS of violence involving teenagers have caused many persons to start asking why these things are happening. “What causes teenage violence?” they ask. “How could kids from such normal families do such things? The parents were well off, they lived in nice houses, they had everything.”

Well, psychology can’t offer a single answer—but there are some issues to consider.

 


 

The
 
Nature
 
Of
 
Adolescence

Simply put, adolescence is a time when children start to use their newly developed powers of logical thinking to see for themselves whether the things they’ve been told all their lives by adults—especially their parents—are really true.

This explains why there is so much youthful idealism and why adolescents are so prone to say, “What a stupid world. Things shouldn’t have to be this way. We could make it better if we only tried.” Sometimes they actually manage to make some social changes, but slowly they sink into the reality of human complacency and the battle against the world becomes harder and harder to fight—especially as they take on jobs and families. And before they know it, they are dealing with questioning children of their own.

The “storm and stress” concept of adolescent development, which depicts adolescence as a time of turmoil and angst (anxiety and depression), really derives from 18th and 19th century Romanticism and was utilized in the developmental theories of psychoanalysis.

  

Do you know the music of Beethoven or the painting of Turner? Well, these are examples of Romanticism in art. The term Romanticism refers not to romance as in courtship but to a concept of life as filled with passionate mood swings and dramatic helplessness in the face of nature.

  

Generally, for most kids with stable, healthy families, the adolescent process isn’t all that traumatic, and it is usually far from being violent. But there can be problems.

 


 

Adolescent
 
Problems

Failed Communication

The adolescent process can be relatively easy and smooth if parents learn how to communicate effectively with their children right from the beginning. After all, if parents are sufficiently committed to their own moral beliefs—if they have any—they can encourage their children to learn about and discuss those beliefs as they grow up, and there won’t be so much for the children to challenge in adolescence.

But if parents are authoritarian and impose their beliefs on their children, that only gives the children that much more to challenge later.

  

So what is an authoritarian parent? It is someone who, when challenged or questioned says, “Because I say so, that’s why!”

  

Also, if parents lack spiritual and moral beliefs, their children will grow up without any sense of honest, compassionate discipline. Most kids are smart enough to realize that when parents give them too much freedom it really means that the parents don’t care—or don’t know any better themselves. So the children can end up with such profound emptiness and guilt about the meaningless pursuit of self-gratification that they challenge everything out of pure frustration. And where does that lead? It leads right to bitter identity confusion, anger, and depression.

  

Simply stated, children become adolescents who feel worthless because their parents’ lives are valueless—that is, without meaningful, spiritual values. And communication fails because the family is governed by a fear of love.
 
In a similar way, much of adolescent “acting out” (which technically means communicating behaviorally rather than verbally) is an unconscious attempt to prove to the parents that they are full of you-know-what.

  

 
Lack of “Normality”

Many persons think that if a someone looks ordinary then he or she must be “normal.” Newspaper and television reporters are always making this mistake. They take a quick look at a family with working parents and a house and say, “But they are so normal. How could such a tragedy have come from such a good family?”

Well, there are also a lot of people in this world who know what a dysfunctional family is, and they know very well that above all else dysfunctional families do their very best to always look ordinary and “good.” Broken by adultery, alcoholism, divorce, drug use, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and violence—take your pick—the whole family devotes a tremendous effort to keeping family “secrets,” and each family member adopts a discrete role to play in the deception held up to the outside world. So do you really think that reporters are at all qualified to make clinical assessments of family normality?

The problem for adolescents in such families is that they have to live a lie. In fact, some of these adolescents can become quite skilled in passing themselves off as nice, likable, normal kids with wonderful futures and no problems. As kids say, “What a joke!” Other adolescents can become quite skilled in developing images as risk-taking rebels; but that image, too, is just a lie, created as a flash of adrenaline-charged excitement to ward off dull feelings of despair. So, too, tattoos, skulls and crossbones, deafening music played with hellish theatrical effects, drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol are all attempts to flirt with death because you have no sense of real life.

So outward appearances don’t really count for much. They can easily hide a boiling pot of shame, fear, anger, cynicism, frustration, and loneliness.

 
Wealth

People are always looking at outward signs of wealth and saying, “What a shame. She had everything a child could want. How could she have done that?” Well, here’s another joke. She had everything, all right—except love.

We are especially prone to thinking that material success brings “happiness.” And we are so indoctrinated with this belief that if someone has material success we just assume that he or she must be “happy.” We rarely stop to ask ourselves if there might be something else to life, something missing in the advertisements, TV, sports, music, and movies that surround us.

Yes, a child can grow up in a wealthy family with a million dollar house and for all outward appearances look normal and happy. So what’s the problem? Maybe the problem has to do with parents

who are so busy accumulating wealth that they never have time to talk to you;

who trample on their neighbors and colleagues in order to get a few steps ahead;

who never touch you in kindness or sit down to eat with you;

who never bother to ask you what you are thinking or feeling;

who have shattered your family security with their adultery and divorce;


  

who are so much a product of our permissive society that they have forsaken self-restraint and self-discipline and cannot even punish you when you do something wrong.

 
So imagine: a child who has everything, but really nothing. How could he have committed such a crime? 

Maybe, as Pogo said, “. . . the enemy . . . is us.” [1] Maybe the root of all childhood disobedience is to be found in a lack of parental love: the lack of genuine parental values and the ultimate fraud of all authority that is based in nothing but moral emptiness.

 


 

Denial
 
and
 
Lies
 

Adolescence is a time for an individual to transition from being more-or-less dependent on others to taking personal responsibility for one’s own life. Consider, though, how difficult this task can be when most adults around the adolescent deny responsibility for almost everything and lie about their motives for almost anything.

The whole point of training pit bull dogs to attack with ferocity is to have them maul other creatures. So, even though adults deny this reality, is it any surprise when dogs attack people? Is it any wonder that so many children get mauled by dogs?

The whole point of keeping loaded guns in a house is to kill someone. So, even though adults deny this reality, is it any surprise when people get killed with guns? Is it any wonder that a child finds a loaded gun and kills someone?

The whole point of smoking cigarettes is to pollute the body with noxious, addictive chemicals. So, even though adults deny this reality, is it any surprise when smokers die of cancer? Is it any wonder that so many children express their self-hatred by smoking cigarettes?

The whole point of drinking alcohol is to impair judgment so that painful facts aren’t seen for what they really are. So, even though adults deny this reality, is it any surprise when many adults get drunk and do stupid things? Is it any wonder that so many children drink alcohol?

The whole point of using street drugs is to thumb your nose at the painful facts of life. So, even though adults deny this reality, is it any surprise when addicts become criminals? Is it any wonder that so many children use drugs?

The whole biological point of having sex is for a woman to get pregnant. So, when so many adults deny this reality, is it any surprise there are so many unloved and abused children in this world? Is it any wonder that so many teenage girls get pregnant?

The whole point of having an abortion is to kill an unwanted child. So, when so many adults deny this reality, is it any surprise that so many people have a contempt for life? Is it any wonder that so many children commit suicide?

The whole point of rejecting moral values is to say that anything goes. So, when so many adults deny this reality, is it any surprise that violence and murder are a part of anything? Is it any wonder that so many children will do anything—even kill their parents or teachers or classmates?

 


  

Clinical
 
Diagnoses

A common-sense approach to understanding adolescent violence would point to a concept derived from animal behavior: the pecking order. Among chickens, for example, the most powerful bird can peck on any other bird to assert its authority. The next most powerful bird must be submissive to the most powerful bird but can peck on any other bird less powerful. And so it goes, down the line, until the weakest bird must be submissive to all and can peck on none.

In families, this principle can be seen when a parent disciplines a child, and the child then runs to her room and “disciplines” her doll.

Of course, when parental discipline becomes abuse, more disturbing childhood behavior can occur, such as bullying. Psychologically, most bullies are children who are being abused at home and who then turn on their peers—their weaker peers, of course—to “peck” on them. In fact, this is the origin of the classic taunt to a bully: Why don’t you pick on someone your own size? Well, bullying isn’t about aggressive competition; it’s about (a) the need to humiliate others because of feeling humiliated by one’s own weakness, and (b) the desire to get revenge on the world in general because of having been hurt. Both of these unconscious motives derive from having been abused by an adult, so the bully has to pick on someone weaker and smaller than himself (or herself). In the end, bullying is the satanic inversion of the Golden Rule; instead of treating others with understanding and kindness, as we all would like to be treated, bullies do to others, in all bitterness, what was done to them. 

  

Bullying can even be directed at things. In damaging property, the adolescent receives the satisfaction of feeling more powerful than something else. It’s as if the adolescent is thinking, in his or her unconscious logic, “My parents have injured my self-esteem, and society has frustrated me, but if I can damage something—anything—then look how powerful I am!”

  

And this leads us to the clinical diagnoses of disturbed childhood behavior. The most serious disorder is Conduct Disorder, which is characterized by behavior in which “the basic rights of others or age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated,” as manifested through the following criteria, per the DSM-IV:[2]


  

Aggression to people and animals (e.g., bullying, initiating fights, using weapons, cruelty, mugging, sexual coercion)

Destruction of property (e.g., fire setting or other destruction)

Deceitfulness or theft (e.g., breaking and entering, “conning,” shoplifting)

Serious violations of rules (e.g., staying out all night, running away from home, skipping school)

 
Oppositional Defiant Disorder is essentially a “recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures” [2a] but without the contempt for societal norms and the basic rights of others which is seen in Conduct Disorder.

A child with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be disruptive, but the behavior is largely hyperactive and impulsive rather than malicious.

A diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder may be considered if the conduct problems do not meet the requirements for another specific disorder and occur in the context of a psychosocial “stressor.”

Finally, a diagnosis of a Manic Episode may be considered if the conduct problems follow the episodic course of Mania.

 


 

The
 
Issue
 
Of
 
Violent
 
Entertainment

Some persons argue that violent movies, music, and video games cause teenagers to act violently. Let’s look at these arguments.

 
Movies and Music

The argument against violent movies and music usually hinges on the fact that someone saw a particular movie, or heard a particular song, and then committed a crime in imitation of the movie or song. Well, this “imitation” argument just is not scientific.

Sure, someone may have imitated the movie or song, but millions of other people who also saw the same movie or heard the same song didn’t imitate it. Scientifically, you simply cannot take one case and then claim that it proves much of anything about the world in general. Period.

The real problem with violent movies and music is not to be found in the matter of simple imitation; the real problem is that violent entertainment has subversive psychological effects that lead to social disintegration.

1.

First, such forms of entertainment are popular because they allow teenagers to experience an outward expression of the very same anger and frustration they are already feeling inwardly because of their dysfunctional lives. Keep in mind here that the expression of hostile feelings and impulses has no healing quality; instead, it only “fans the flames” of inner confusion and discontent.

  

2.

Second, such forms of entertainment have a tendency to “infect” us with their destructive values of hostility, revenge, and vulgarity.

It’s a tragedy that our society, knowing this is happening as a clear sign of cultural and familial disintegration, chooses to ignore it anyway and allows it to continue.

  

In pathetic denial of reality, we crave to be intertained with imaginary violence and death, but there will come times—just as we are telling ourselves that we are having fun—that real violence and death will take us by surprise. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

  

 
Video Games

Some people claim that, like violent movies, violent video games promote violence. Other people say, “Video games are just games, so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that even though they are games, the ones involving shooting can teach some real skills about using weapons. A person who gets good at handling a pistol or shotgun to kill fake enemies can very easily turn those skills onto real people. And, in the process of playing the game, one becomes desensitized to the horror of real killing—so if the killing ever does become real, it is carried out with a complete lack of empathy for the victims.

So remember: Just as movies or music by themselves are actually unlikely to cause anyone to commit a crime, video games may not cause violence either. But for those who are predisposed to violence because of inner hurt and anger, violent movies, violent music, and violent games can combine to provide the inspiration and the skills and the hardness of heart necessary to commit a real crime.

  

It’s not that the television, movies, music, and games of our culture are necessarily evil in themselves—though in some cases they are—but that our attraction to them can draw us away from the good and the peaceful and push us onto the very threshold of the door to malevolence and death.

  

 


 

Blame
 

Soon after a tragedy, you will hear the voices of many indignant observers crying out, “We need to ban guns!”

But wait a minute here.

Cigarettes kill more people than guns—why not ban cigarettes?

Well, banning cigarettes would disrupt too many lives. Too many persons have too much money and pleasure at stake to have any concern for social welfare. And right there you have the psychological truth about our culture: It’s far easier to cast blame in the moment to satisfy our thirst for revenge than it is to address the real problem. It’s far easier to say, “Let’s ban guns” than to address the real problem, because the real problem, as I said before, is us.

The killer to truly fear is the killer in your own heart.

Now, you might say, “That’s ridiculous. I would never kill innocent people like that [expletive deleted] did!”

Well, think again, because you still have a lot to learn about the psychology of the unconscious. Our entire culture has oriented itself around power and retaliation as a response to fear and vulnerability, and every individual in the culture carries that infection deep within the unconscious. Look carefully at yourself. Hurling curses at someone is an act of hatred, and hatred, in its ugly truth, is psychological murder no less destructive than the murder committed by a teenager with an assault rifle.

The enemy is us.

Yes, guns kill. But so do cars and so do airplanes. Should we ban them too? Far better to banish hatred from our lives. But we cannot do that the easy way by making hatred illegal, because that only opens the door to hating those who hate. Instead, we must endeavor to purge hatred from our hearts and learn forgiveness.

The enemy is us. Will we learn?

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Anger and Forgiveness
(3rd edition)

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Notes.

1. Go to http://nauticom.net/www/chuckm/whmte.htm to see an image of Walt Kelly’s 1971 Pogo cartoon with this quote.
 
2, 2a. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

 
Additional Resources
 
Child and Adolescent Mental Health:
ADD   provides “information and discussion about the diagnosis and medical treatment of ADD/ADHD” and describes “the many social consequences people with ADD/ADHD neurology not infrequently struggle to cope with.”
Autism  from the National Institute of Mental Health
Autism Research Institute
Cancer: Support and Resources  from the National Cancer Institute.
Children and Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General  provides comprehensive information about child development, mental health disorders (including ADHD), and treatment.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Activities  from the Center for Mental Health Services.
Conduct Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Primary Care  from American Family Physician.
Contemporary Pediatrics®  offers many helpful articles.
Depression in Children and Adolescents  from American Family Physician.
Guidance for Effective Discipline  from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Helping Children After a Disaster  from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Helping children with learning disabilities toward a brighter adulthood  from Contemporary Pediatrics
National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information
Self-Injury in Adolescents - AACAP Facts For Families  from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Sleep disorders in children and teens  from Postgraduate Medicine
Sleep Disorders and Sleep Problems in Childhood  from American Family Physician
Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents  from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When parents have a drinking problem  from Contemporary Pediatrics
 
Violence:
Bullies and victims: A guide for pediatricians  from Contemporary Pediatrics®.
Deadly Lessons: (2002), Table of Contents  from Nat’l Academy Press.
Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools  from the U.S. Department of Education.
ERIC/CASS Virtual Library on School Violence
Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Depression and Suicide
Family Therapy
Fear
Forgiveness
Honesty
Identity and Loneliness
Sex and Love
Terrorism and Psychology
Trauma
The Unconscious
 
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