Causes of Youth Violence

On any given day in the United States, you will find a news story about youth violence. Whether it is street violence, bullying, or a school shooting, our country's youth is plagued by violent behavior. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines youth violence as an extreme form of aggression with the goal of physical harm, injury, or death. Examples of youth violence include everything from date rape, homicides, and school shootings to gang violence and bullying.

For parents and educators of teens, it is important to recognize that these types of violent behaviors are more prevalent than they should be. In fact, homicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 19 years old in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Consequently, for this rate of violence to decrease, parents and educators need to take an active part in preventing youth violence in the lives of teens. To do this, it's important to understand what causes violent youth behavior. Following are the most common causes of violence among teens.

Media Influence

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Research indicates that violence in the media influences teens and can cause them to act aggressively. Although it is difficult to determine whether or not violence in media leads directly to youth violence, studies have shown that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts and behaviors.

In fact, one study found that violent video games not only escalate aggressive behaviors, but they also increase angry thoughts as well as raise the heart rate and blood pressure of participants. Meanwhile, these video games decrease "helping behaviors" and reduce feelings of empathy. What's more, violent video game users tend to interact with other aggressive teens, which makes them feel accepted and validated for their thoughts and feelings.

While video games often get the most attention, violence in media isn't limited to video games. Violent media also can include the Internet, television, magazines, movies, music, advertising, social media, and more. Basically, media consists of anything your teen sees, hears, or interacts with.

Teen Communities and Neighborhoods

Where teens live can also have an impact on them and lead them to act more aggressively. In fact, the CDC points to several community risk factors for youth violence including diminished economic opportunities, high levels of crime, and socially-disorganized neighborhoods.

Additionally, a study by the APA found that youth violence can become a form of "street justice" in response to the lack of police protection or patrols in poorer neighborhoods. When this happens, teens may attempt to secure the neighborhood by using violence as a way of bringing order to the area. As a result, youth violence often manifests as gang violence, turf wars, gun wars, and other types of violence.

When teens live in socioeconomically-challenged neighborhoods, they may feel like their only option for survival is to join a gang or to engage in violence. When this line of thinking is the norm, teens are likely to act aggressively and participate in violent behaviors.

Domestic Violence and Child Abuse

Children who live with violence in the home learn by example and can become violent people as they grow up. They also are more likely to experience teen dating violence either as a victim or an aggressor.

Other contributing factors include harsh parenting styles along with chaos in the home, neglect, and rejection. Each of these situations can lead to youth violence later in life because of the lack of stability and structure in the home. Many times, violence is about power and control. Consequently, being violent gives the teen a feeling of power and control—something they lack at home.

To combat this risk, it is important that parents consider their parenting style and make adjustments in order to reduce the likelihood of seeing violence in their teens' lives later. Meanwhile, educators can lend support by offering parenting workshops for all their school's parents.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can get help by contacting The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Insufficient Parental Supervision

Teens who receive insufficient supervision from their parents are prone to engage in aggressive behaviors or criminal activity. Without adequate adult supervision, they do not have the resources needed to make good choices or to recognize risks.

Consequently, these teens tend to make friends with the wrong people, take unnecessary risks, and experiment with things an involved parent would never allow. What's more, when parents are permissive, their kids often have no motivation to do well in school and may even stop caring about their future.

As a whole, teenagers need fair and firm discipline and consistent interaction with and direction from their parents. When parents take an active role in their teens' lives, it reduces the likelihood of teen violence.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure plays a pivotal role in youth violence, especially because kids are more likely to engage in risky or violent behaviors when they act as a group. As a result, teens who normally would not be aggressive or violent on their own often feel empowered when in a group.

Additionally, teens are more likely to be violent or aggressive when they feel pressured. They also may become violent in order to maintain their place in the group. Peer pressure can even lead teens to engage in risk taking behaviors.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and drug use has long been associated with the risk for youth violence. In fact, both alcohol and drug use can increase aggression and reduce fear, which increases the likelihood of youth violence.

While teens usually engage in recreational drug and alcohol use to feel good, prolonged use of illicit drugs often brings about feelings of depression, anger, and frustration. These feelings can then lead a teen to exhibit behaviors of aggression and rage.

Traumatic Events

Dealing with traumatic events also can cause violent behavior in teens. For instance, teens who lose a friend in a car accident that they also were involved in often get angry at the fact that they were the ones that lived. Because anger is a normal stage of grief, a violent outburst from these teens may seem justified. But, while anger is a normal emotion, it is not normal to be violent toward another person. When violence occurs, it should always be addressed.

Meanwhile, teens who exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to a traumatic event also may be prone to violence. In fact, violent outbursts are typically a symptom of PTSD, and if left untreated, can manifest in significantly violent situations. For this reason, it is extremely important for teens with PTSD to get the counseling and intervention that they need.

Mental Illness

Mental illness is another cause of violence among teens. In fact, mental health issues like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and conduct disorder all have aggressive behaviors or angry feelings as common symptoms.

Teen mental illness sometimes hides behind other causes of youth violence. For instance, a teen with bipolar disorder may be using drugs. If this teen becomes violent, the drug use could hide the fact that the bipolar illness is part of the cause.

For this reason, it is important that teens engaging in violent behaviors are evaluated for a mental illness. By treating the entire person rather than just the symptoms, you are more likely to reduce the risk of additional violent outbursts.

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Article Sources

  1. American Psychological Association, "Warning signs of youth violence"

  2. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "FastStats - Adolescent Health"

  3. "Youth Violence: What We Know and What We Need to Know." American Psychological Association, 2016. doi: 10.1037/a0039687

  4. "Youth Violence: What We Need to Know." National Science Foundation, 2013.

Additional Reading

  • "Youth Violence: What We Need to Know." National Science Foundation, 2013.