How Do You Explain Teen Violence?

Photo by cottonbro studio

By Dan Blair, marriage therapist and family counselor

Should we just say, “It’s complicated?” According to the CDC, homicide is a third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 19 years old in the United States. This alarming fact underscores the importance of addressing teen violence.

The most common correlations appear to be the frequest experience of abuse or extensive bullying, and exposure to violence in the home or community. In addition to a history of maltreatment there is evidence of devaluation that comes from others, either in the home, school or community. This is exacerbated by feeling like an outsider, one that doesn’t belong or is less than, and is also helpless to do anything about it. Profound loss can be masked by rage.

So what can we do? Acknowledgement of one’s experiences and affirmation of worth are associated with effective interventions. Teens need to be listened to. What is their story? It’s important to identify and validate experiences of personal loss and collective grief. We don’t want to give anger management techniques without addressing the root cause. This is a mindset, not loss of control.

I asked teens how they feel about their use of violence. For some they see it as necessary for survival. Others have to justify the use of violence, which is basically seen as the only way to deal with painful situations. For many with broken relationships, rejection and abandonment, violence is a suitable protest based on their experience, or as a mean of recognition and validation. Many of the kids I worked valued material items, seeing that relationships are not trustworthy, except maybe in the context of violence in the media or on the street. Kids I worked with searched for communities of acceptance in which they can find the ability to self-advocate and feel valued. Finding such communities can play a major role in deterring violence. At the same time when I’m listening to teens I like to look for their strengths in the face of opposition, or at times in which they were proud of themselves. Instead of condemning, be curious about their story.

This is a systemic issues, and just focusing on the individual may be inadequate to address the problem of teen violence. These days we have instant access to violence in our neighborhood, country and world. Media’s rule of thumb seems to be “If it bleeds, it leads.” Vivid images and sounds are promoted so that people have access to advertisements. The shooting in Nashville last week is an example.

Even if we are not in danger, our nervous symptoms can process threatening information as if we were. In that case, we are subject to stress hormones, which if repeated or severe enough can result in secondary trauma. Those who have been exposed to trauma and injustice will find their stress response easily triggered. It’s an assault on the value of a person, the value of a child. It’s collective loss, grief and helplessness. It fuels anger.

Talking about disturbing and traumatic events as soon as possible with a safe person works best to alleviate or prevent symptoms. Some may not want to talk because they would rather avoid it. We don’t want to pressure anyone to talk, but at least invite a conversation.

Here are some ways to talk about exposure to violence with others. First, find out from them what they know about the event affecting them. If they are incorrect about something, you can provide facts about what happened. More important than getting the facts straight is understanding the impact on them. You can ask what they thought about when they heard or read about the event. Maybe explore the emotional impact of what they heard. Be curious how hearing this may change their usual behavior. Remember to use age-appropriate language. The younger the child, make more general statements should be used without getting into details.

Address any concerns, worries or fears that they may have. Don’t give false reassurances. Listing ways to be safe may help, along with developing a healthy support system. It’s important to normalize their feelings and remind them that they’re not alone. You can identify with their feelings, but this isn’t the time for you to vent. Don’t forget to check in with them later and be aware of how they’re doing.

At some point you may want to remind them that most people want to help, not hurt others. Pay attention to the people who are running to help in any particular event. For older kids, talking about future solutions can help with the loss of control.

If needed you could do some deep breathing, or do something enjoyable with them, or comforting. Perhaps a break from social media would be helpful. Getting outside and processing stress hormones with movement or exercise is known to be helpful.

What are some things to look out for?

1. Difficulty sleeping, excessive sleeping or nightmares
2. Physical problems like stomach aches, headaches or loss of appetite
3. Irritability and aggressiveness
4. Substance use

In trauma, people re-experience the event in various ways leading to a desire to avoid it, but also feel guilty, irritable, and anxious. Or, you may encounter intrusive symptoms, or panic.

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