The life of a chronically violent person is a matrix of complex interactive systems. Behavior can best be understood by examining the dynamics of the individual’s social context, psychological characteristics, biology, and environment. Chronic violence does not just happen one day, it develops, usually in childhood and progresses through adulthood.
Research has identified the factors that contribute to violence. Actuarial risk tools can identify those at risk to a greater degree than clinical judgment alone. Interventions have demonstrated their effectiveness in preventing future violent acts.
Factors Contributing to the Development of Violence
In infancy, most mothers instinctively hold, rock, cuddle and coo at their infants and a natural bond is created. When caregivers neglect or abuse their infants or expose them to domestic violence, problems with attachment can occur. Empathy for others does not develop, while rage or apathy may be prominent. This early interaction becomes the template for all future relationships.
During middle childhood, prosocial peer group rejection and school failure alienate and separate some youth from conventional activities, socialization processes, and attachment to the larger community. This, then, becomes a significant precursor to either social withdrawal or joining a deviant peer group, where they can become successful in their own eyes and the eyes of peers
Youth with a flexible, easygoing temperament seem to cope better with stress and are easier for parents to manage. Children with an irritable temperament may be more difficult to manage and may cope less well with environmental or social stressors and thus may be more at risk for inappropriate reactions to stress.
Violence, abuse, trauma, neglect, severe losses can interfere with a child’s normal development. They may not learn how to manage their emotions well. Violent children experience little emotion, but when they do it is often explosive. They often are unable to self-soothe or self-calm.
There is also a predictable progression of moral development throughout one’s lifetime. In the early stages of moral development, children believe that what is right is what meets the needs of the self. It appears that violent children are in this very early childhood stage of moral development. They have not yet acknowledged that relationships, reciprocity, and membership in groups are important.
The human brain continues to develop in early childhood. Early trauma and neglect can interfere with brain development. Additionally, an intelligent child may be able to withstand the negative effects of a violent environment better than those with less intelligence. An intelligent child can be successful in school and thus receive necessary nurturing, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, even when it is not available at home.
Children practice what they see and reherse what they believe to be expected adult behavior. If there is an easy availability of firearms and community standards which favor the use of drugs and violence, the children of that neighborhood may be more likely to see the use of drugs and firearms as acceptable adult behaviors.
By the time most children are grown, they have seen 100,000 acts of violence on TV, video games, and in the movies. Many experts agree that media violence negatively affects children. It may affect those with greater numbers of risk factors more strongly.
We all want the “American Dream.” When the one group views those of another group in a negative light, it can affect how youth see themselves and it is also possible for discrimination to block the path to pro-social success. When extreme economic deprivation and other factors cause the path of pro-social success to be blocked or unavailable, teens may seek out other means to succeed.
Additionally, in our modern, western culture there is still the “mis-education of male children. They are often taught the macho values of being stoic. The only emotion they are encouraged to express is anger. The “softer” emotions are frequently taboo for males. They are encouraged to “not be sissies.” Schools continue to favor sedentary, rather than active learning. This places boys who are naturally active at a disadvantage.
Non-aggressive youth have social bonds that contain four elements:
1. Attachment to parents, peers, and school.
2. Commitment to conventional lines of action (i.e., deferred gratification, work ethic, the value of education.
3. Involvement in conventional activities (school, sports, family activities, work).
4. Belief in the traditional ideas of right and wrong.
These factors form the basis of resiliency.
Risk Assessment Tools
Clinical judgment of future risk of violence is no better than chance. Various actuarial risk assessment tools have been developed to increase the accuracy of determining youth and adults that are at risk for future violence. Youth tools include the CARE (Seifert, 2003), SAVRY (Borum, Bartel, Forth, 2002), and PCL-YV (Forth, Kosson, Hare, 1996). Adult Risk Assessment Tools include the PCL-R (Hare, 2003), HCR-20 (Hart and Webster), RME (Seifert, 2006), and VRAG (Quinsey, et al, 1998). It is important to use these tools to identify interventions to manage future risk of violence, such as the CARE and the RME.
A study (Seifert, in press) demonstrated the effectiveness of the use of the CARE and a school based mental health program to reduce the number of incidents of officially recorded violence in one school district.
Children develop best in the shelter of a loving nurturing environment where their needs are met. This gives them the safety to explore their surroundings. Caregivers can explain, assist, and teach. When the various social, psychological, biological, and environmental factors have negative components, difficulty managing emotions, lack of empathy, poor self-image, lower levels of problem solving skill, deficient social skills can be the result. This model proposes that the various factors that influence children are interactive and that there is a threshold of higher numbers of negative factors and low levels of positive factors beyond which there is a greater risk for violent behaviors.
Violence risk assessment tools can assist in the identification of youth and adults who are at risk for violence so that interventions can be provided to reduce that risk.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert has over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. She has authored the CARE and numerous articles. Dr. Seifert has lectured internationally on youth and family violence and trauma. http://careforusall.com