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Stemming the Tide of Teen Violence

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IMAGE April fears the dawning of her 11-year-old daughter's teen years more than most parents. The Colorado mom has worked to curb her child's violent temper since the girl was just 3 years old.

"She is better than she used to be," says April, who remembers when her daughter regularly threw plates of food, punched relatives' pets, and shouted curse words in violent temper tantrums. "But she still has outbreaks. It has been an active, ongoing process for her to master her anger." In the not-so-distant future, April worries that social and academic pressures will trigger more serious emotional outbursts.

The roots of violent and aggressive behavior can often be traced back many years. Many children with these kind of traits have a condition known as conduct disorder, which can begin in early childhood or during adolescence and is associated in some children with disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Growing Awareness

Factors that may put youth at risk for conduct disorder include:

  • Abuse of neglect (most influential risk factor)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Poor family functioning
  • Familial substance abuse
  • Family history of psychiatric illness

Certain factors increase a young person's risk of violent behavior, including:

  • History of violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Association with gang members or others with disciplinary problems
  • Disciplinary and/or attendance problems in school, low grades
  • Community poverty

This is not a complete list of risk factors. There are many other possible factors that contribute to youth violence. Also, having one of the above factors does not necessarily mean your child will engage in violent behavior.

Making a Difference

Some strategies may be helpful in preventing violence before starts. These include:

  • Family-based programs that aim to improve family relations
  • Teaching children how to solve social problems without violence
  • Mentoring programs that pair teens with adults who can serve as role models
  • Community-based programs that foster a child's full potential

Some studies have shown that early intervention programs can make a difference for children who show early signs of disruptive behavior. These studies found that disruptive boys who took part in a preventive intervention program for two years beginning in kindergarten had higher rates of high school graduation and lower rates of criminal behavior after 15 years.

Following Advice From the Experts

Prepare for the Teen Years

There are some things you can do beginning when your child is young to help them prepare for the teen years. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends taking these steps:

  • Make the home environment a safe and loving place where your child can expect honesty, trust, and respect and learn to treat others the same.
  • Strive to create a relationship with your child that encourages open communication, especially when your child is upset.
  • Allow your child to be independent and assertive in age-appropriate ways, such as allowing your preschooler to choose his own weather-appropriate clothing.
  • Teach responsibility in caring for personal belongings, the belongings of others, and household chores.
  • Teach and show your child the importance of setting limits.

Talk to Your Child

Communicate openly with your child. If you think something might be wrong, ask your child. Don't ignore problems hoping they will go away. If you need help talking to your child or teen, don't be ashamed to ask for help. There may be problems you are not equipped to manage alone. Your child's doctor will be able to direct you to helpful resources.

Know the Warning Signs

Your teen may exhibit warning signs of emotional or social problems long before they actually participate in violent behavior. Teens with low self-esteem or family problems may also be more at-risk for self-destructive behavior like drug use. These warning signs could mean trouble for your teen:

  • Agitated or restless behavior
  • Changes in weight (loss or gain)
  • Drop in grades
  • Difficulty concentrating, feelings of sadness
  • Lack of motivation, lack of interest in people and activities
  • Fatigue, low energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Problems falling asleep

If you notice any of these signs in your teen , start an open discussion. If your teen consistently exhibits these signs, talk to their doctor. (These signs are also consistent with depression if they last longer than 2 weeks)

Making Connections Count

Time and again, research on teen violence also cites the importance of children feeling connected—to home, to school, to friends, to family. Parents' influence can help, but professional help is often required bridge the gaps in your family dynamic. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps both you and your teen face issues and learn better ways to deal with them. CBT can be done individually and as a group.

Untreated issues in childhood continue through adulthoood. Keep in mind that counseling is confidential. If you don't want to talk to your teen's doctor, you can find a psychiatrist at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website.

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

    http://www.aacap.org

  • National School Safety Center

    http://www.nssc1.org

  • Canadian Mental Health Association

    http://www.cmha.ca

  • Canadian Psychiatric Association

    http://www.cpa-apc.org

  • Boisjoli R, Vitaro F, Lacourse E, Barker ED, Tremblay RE. Impact and clinical significance of a preventive intervention for disruptive boys: 15-year follow-up. Br J Psychiatry. 2007;191:415-419.

  • Conduct disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated Ocotober 1, 2013. Accessed August 14, 2014.

  • Mental health and teens: watch for danger signs. American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/pages/Mental-Health-and-Teens-Watch-for-Danger-Signs.aspx. Updated February 28, 2014. Accessed August 14, 2014.

  • Understanding your teen's emotional health. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/teens/emotional-well-being/understanding-your-teenagers-emotional-health.html. Updated November 2010. Accessed August 14, 2014.

  • Youth violence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence. Updated April 9, 2014. Accessed August 14, 2014.

  • Woolfenden SR, Williams K, Peat J. Family and parenting interventions in children and adolescents with conduct disorder and delinquency aged 10-17. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;CD003015.