Mind Matters: What about youth violence?

Violence: While not in the holiday spirit of “peace on earth, good will to all” it is, unfortunately, a timely topic. Just as the first year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school massacre of innocent children approached, another school shooting has occurred in Colorado. In this incident, one young girl was critically wounded before the teenage shooter killed himself.

This fall I attended a conference on “Assessing Violent Behavior” given by Kathryn Seifert. She reminded her audience that the US is one of the most violent of industrialized nations and that the US incarcerates more people than most industrialized nations—in fact, our violence and incarceration levels are right up there with developing nations and countries at war.

Nevertheless, Seifert acknowledged that under the “right” circumstances any of us could be at risk for violence. For an individual with high coping skills, violence is a last resort. For an individual with low coping skills, violence may be the first choice. Simply put, if the executive function of our “higher” brain, the cortex, is in control, our “lower” primitive brain doesn’t get the best of us. The cortex calms the impulsive limbic system down so that we don’t fly off into a rage or react without considering the consequences.

Seifert, in her book “Youth Violence,” cites an FBI study of school shooters (O’Toole, 2011). It would seem that these youth, often male and Caucasian, have low coping skills and feel bullied and rejected by peers. Other characteristics in their profiles include abuse and neglect as children; discipline in the home that was “too harsh, too lenient, or inconsistent.” That is, there was not discipline and guidance given lovingly. Families were considered low in warmth and high in conflict. Other characteristics included anger management problems, rigid opinionated thinking, and racial and religious intolerance. There may also be a history of behavior problems, preoccupation with violence and access to firearms and other weapons. While these individuals blame others and refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they also consider themselves entitled and lack empathy.

According to research, there are environmental factors common to “suboptimal development, including youth violence.” (Seifert, p. 104) Family stressors include violence at home, parents who have addiction or mental health problems, parents who run the gamut of being either intrusive or uninterested and negligent, the use of corporal punishment.

I recall clients who have come from extremely dysfunctional households who overrode their family dynamics. It was not easy but they chose a different outcome from their past than repeating family history or creating a history for future generations that is even worse.

I consider also Pat Conroy, the author of such books as “The Great Santini “or “The Prince of Tides.” Conroy’s father, in fact, was more violent than the fictional depiction of him. Yet Conroy did not follow suit. He carried the wounds of his father’s violence but it appears that he did not inflict them on his children.

The FBI compilation of characteristics of a youthful shooter may help us understand the origins of violence while recognizing that “no one characteristic indicates that a youth will become a school shooter.” (Seifert, p. 39)

Seifert notes that it is the combination of multiple risk factors and the lack of resiliency factors that create the scenario for a youth to be at risk for violent behavior.

And prevention? Seifert says, “Preventing youth violence should be a major objective of families, schools, child and family service organizations, communities, and all levels of government.” The Incredible Years Program and Head Start, which help increase children’s “social and self-control skills” are cost effective violence prevention measures. So too are projects, such as Healthy Families America and the Nurse-Family Partnership and the Parent-Child Home Program, which educate families in parenting skills.

School-based programs such as PATHS, whose goal is social and emotional skill building, can be instrumental in violence prevention as well.

We do not have to re-invent the wheel to prevent youth violence. However, we do need to support and fund the programs that give children and families the foundation for emotional and physical health and wellbeing.

There are many resources for more information. Here are two:
The Center for Disease Control, www.CDC.gov
The Parent-Child Home Program, www.Parent-Child.org

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com.

 

 

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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