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Helping Teens Who Turn to Violence

How To Recognize Early Signs Of Teen Violence

What makes teens lash out and hurt others or themselves? Experts say the answer isn't as simple as the movie he or she just watched or playing a new video game.

"Video games do not create violent teens," says Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D., of International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles, Calif. "It is the inability to handle anger that is the key. Attacking the media is just an ineffective smoke screen. It can be said that organized sports are just as hateful as video games, but this violence doesn't make the news. There is no real media coverage when rival teams play and someone ends up getting hurt or paralyzed playing sports. It's true some video games are awful, but parents are the ones who ultimately make the decisions about what media their teens have access to."

From the Beginning

The roots of violence are often found earlier in childhood says Butterworth, who adds that 80 percent of teens who commit violent or antisocial acts have a history of disruptive behavior that is known to parents, teachers and peers way before a major occurrence erupts. "Most teens who act out violently show an early combination of personality and family factors that include having trouble getting along with playmates in preschool," says Butterworth. "By second or third grade, they're doing poorly in school and have few friends. By the age of 10, they're picking fights and getting labeled by their peers as social outcasts."

Signs of Potential Problems

Often teens who act out are doing so because they have been hurt by others and cannot control their feelings. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some teens feel that by threatening others or making others fear them, they will solve their problems and earn respect. Below is a list of common behaviors that may indicate a potential problem:

  • Loss of temper on a daily basis.
  • Frequent physical fighting.
  • Increase in risk-taking behavior.
  • Carrying a weapon or talking about a weapon they may have.
  • Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol during and/or after school.
  • Significant vandalism of property and/or hurting animals.
  • History of discipline problems or frequent run-ins with authority.
  • Joining a gang or a strong desire to be in a gang.
  • Threatening others on a regular basis or an increase in verbalized threats.
  • Acting out to anger such as punching walls, lockers, throwing or kicking things.

What Parents Can Do

The best tool in learning about, stopping or preventing violent behavior is parents. "Teens learn by imitating," says Arnold Goldstein, Ph.D., a professor at the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University. "Most often [teens] will follow your lead in how they deal with anger, solve problems and work through difficult feelings. Talk to your teen – don't lecture, criticize, threaten or say hurtful things."

The APA offers tips on how to talk to and listen to your teen, especially those who may be dealing with hurt, anger or confusing feelings in order to help avoid violent behavior. Some of these tips include:

  • When your teen is talking about his/her concerns, stop whatever it is you are doing and listen.
  • Listen to your teen's point of view, even if it is difficult to hear.
  • Let them complete their point, their opinion and/or their concern before you respond.
  • Focus on your teen's feelings rather than your own during your conversation.
  • Resist arguing about who or what is right. Instead, say, "I know you disagree with me, but this is what I think."
  • Ask your teen what he/she may want or need from you in a conversation, such as advice, simply listening, help in dealing with a feelings or help solving a problem.
  • Realize that your teen may test you by telling you a small part of what is bothering him/her. Listen carefully to what they say, encourage them to talk, and they may share the rest of the story.

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