KIDS
August 18, 2010

Violent Teens

Teen violence can de-rail young lives. A new study links it to a teen's stage of sexual development, not age.

Violence by teenagers impacts individuals, groups, and society as a whole. The threat or experience of bodily harm and property damage make individuals and communities feel unsafe. Legal and social repercussions of violence may change an adolescent's educational, vocational, and social trajectories and lead to a less successful adult life.

Teen violence takes two forms: aggressive and/or violent behavior during which a victim is attacked with the intent of causing physical injury; and social/relational aggression which is aimed at affecting peer status by excluding the victim from a group or circulating hurtful or lies or rumors about the victim.

Teen violence has been attributed to multiple causes including poor social attachments from earliest childhood, underlying psychiatric disorders, too much or too little family discipline, peer group influence, and the relative ease of accessing firearms in some communities.

Violence can be triggered when an adolescent misreads or misinterprets social situations and sees them as more malicious or threatening than they actually are and then overreacting. It can also be proactive in that the violent individual expects a positive outcome to result from their aggressive actions.

The key to decreasing the toll of teen violence lies in understanding its causes and designing interventions that are aimed at eliminating or modifying risk factors.

Teen violence has been attributed to multiple causes including poor social attachments from earliest childhood, underlying psychiatric disorders, too much or too little family discipline, peer group influence, and the relative ease of accessing firearms in some communities. A recently published study looked at the association between a teen's stage of puberty and the likelihood of his/her engaging in violent behavior.

A Vulnerable Time

Puberty is usually divided into five stages that are defined by specific physical changes. The physical development, which includes changes in size and appearance of breasts and sexual organs, bodily hair and other physical characteristics, reflect the internal hormonal changes that culminate in sexual maturation. Puberty can also be divided into early, middle and late stages and each is characterized by physiological, emotional, and social challenges. Most teens experience the stages of puberty at about the same age. If a teen is at a different stage of puberty than his/her same-aged peers, he/she may be experiencing a premature or delayed sexual development.

There are some potential reasons why puberty may be a time when violent behavior becomes more likely and more troublesome. Puberty is characterized by increase in body size, which can make violent teens more dangerous. It is also characterized by parent-child conflict that can elevate the importance and influence of the peer group in a teen's life and decreases the opportunity for teens to learn from parental feedback.

Teens are at higher risk of substance use/abuse. When teens are drunk or using drugs, their impulse control and risk assessment skills are impaired making them more likely to act out.

Studying Pubertal Stage, Not Age
In the recent study, the investigators wanted to find out whether the stage of puberty was associated with the practice of violent behavior and/or social/relational aggression. If it were, they wondered whether age and gender influenced the association, and whether social factors in a teen's life would change the impact of pubertal stage on aggression. They surveyed 5769 students in grades 5,7, and 9 in two diverse areas, Washington State, and southeastern Australia. They used a two stage questionnaire to assess the teens' pubertal stages, the social factors in their lives such as family, school, peer group, their personal factors such as depressive symptoms and alcohol and tobacco use, and the teens' reports of acts of physical violent behavior, or social/relation aggression.

Violence in Late Puberty
They found that teens were two and a half to three times more likely to engage in violent behavior and social/relational aggression in late puberty than in early puberty regardless of how old the teen was when he/she achieved late puberty. This means that stage, not age, is the key factor and suggests that attention to pubertal stage on routine physical exams should prompt stage-specific counseling to teens and parents.

...Stage, not age, is the key factor and suggests that attention to pubertal stage on routine physical exams should prompt stage-specific counseling to teens and parents.

The researchers also found that the risk of social/relational violence was increased when younger teens entered puberty earlier than expected. They did not find a strong role for family, school, or peer group that was independent of pubertal stage for this social/relational aggression.

Family Supervision, School Interest and Friends Help

Three social factors were closely linked to an increased risk of physical violence: poor family discipline and supervision, low interest in school, and a peer group whose members frequently engaged in antisocial actions such as vandalism and substance use.

Not surprisingly, having antisocial friends increased the risk of violent behavior at any stage of puberty. It has been shown that gangs encourage violent and antisocial behavior. Not only do they set standards where violent and aggressive behavior is the norm, they encourage members to behave violently through peer pressure.

Risk Factors: Early Puberty and Unstable Neighborhoods

A previous study examined the link between violent behavior and timing of puberty in girls. The researchers interviewed 500 girls over a three-year period and used the onset of menarche (start of periods) as the measure of full pubertal maturation. They found that the girls who matured earlier than the norm had an increased risk of violent behavior only if they lived in a disadvantaged neighborhood.

...Alienation from her peers and parents makes her a target for an antisocial peer group and increases the risk of developing violent behaviors in response to the stress of feeling like she has no one to turn to for comfort or advice.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Neighborhoods provide unstructured and often largely unsupervised activities. In them, teens can encounter negative role models without their parents' awareness. When neighborhoods are disadvantaged, there is more potential for crime and gang activity, making it harder to resist.

When neighborhoods are unstable and residents move often, teens – and other residents — have less opportunity to develop a social network or sense of community standards. Parents cannot rely on other adults to mentor or be aware of their children's' activities or risks.

When girls reach puberty early, they do not fit in with their same-aged peers. They become attractive potential targets for manipulative or coercive young adults. When a teen's physical maturation is advanced beyond her cognitive abilities, she may not know how to cope with the sexual and social expectations that her older-appearing body elicits. Her parents, aware of the risks, may react by attempting more restrictive control, and she may act out against this. This alienation from her peers and parents makes her a target for an antisocial peer group and increases the risk of developing violent behaviors in response to the stress of feeling like she has no one to turn to for comfort or advice.

When a teen's physical maturation is advanced beyond her cognitive abilities, she may not know how to cope with the sexual and social expectations that her older-appearing body elicits. Her parents, aware of the risks, may react by attempting more restrictive control...

The researchers in this study concluded that early maturation by itself was not a risk factor for the onset of violent behavior in girls. Their findings supported an earlier study which found that although there is a behavioral vulnerability that is associated with earlier sexual maturation, it does not become manifest unless the teen is living in a disadvantaged, high risk neighborhood. That study author, suggested that the pressures of a disadvantaged, violent, under-monitored neighborhood were responsible for young teens acting in an inappropriate manner.

Stage, Not Age

Teen violence is clearly a public health issue and as such it is a complex, multifactorial problem. The recent studies support the notion that a teen's pubertal stage – their degree of physical and sexual maturity — rather than age alone makes them more prone to violence.

In girls, early puberty often creates an important vulnerability towards the development of antisocial behaviors when a girl lives in a disadvantaged neighborhood and poorly functioning family. Early puberty can alienate a girl from her parents and her same-age, but less physically developed peers and make her attractive to an older antisocial crowd.

Physicians, teachers, counselors, and mentors should keep the role of puberty in mind as they consider the onset of teen violence.

Public policy makers should recognize that interventions should identify vulnerable teens, and provide supportive social structures focused on modifying the impact of negative environments.

Finally, as this recent study makes clear, parents should be aware that as their children enter puberty, they enter a new stage of developmental risk. Parents may want to talk with their children's health care providers as well as seek community-based supports such as mentoring programs, teen community service programs, or help keep their child engaged by finding sports, music, arts, or writing programs in which they can enroll.

For teens with problems, there are often conflict resolution and antiviolence training programs provided by schools and police departments. Community mental health centers may also offer parenting programs. Some programs give actual skills training. Some provide contexts to learn and practice successful coping skills. Some provide role models and alternative activities to those that lead to poor behavior, and some provide sources of self-expression and self esteem that promote emotional resilience.

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