Like all complex learned behavior, violence is multi-determined, i.e., not only do certain individual characteristics  increase the risk of violent behavior (e.g., impulsivity) but so too does exposure to what public health professionals call “risk factors” at the familial level (high conflict family dynamics), peer level (e.g., anti-social peer norms), group membership or non-membership (e.g., gangs and school dropout), neighborhood (e.g., high crime rates and high levels of concentrated poverty), and the overall culture and conditions (e.g., high unemployment rates and discrimination).  Moreover, these risk factors—from individual to overall culture—reciprocally influence one another.  Generally, the impact of an increasing number of risk factors has a multiplicative effect on the likelihood of violent behavior.  Nevertheless, there are protective factors that can limit or reduce the impact of risk factors, e.g., school engagement, family cohesion, and opportunities to participate in meaningful activities and in activities that contribute to the well-being of the community.  See Michael’s chapter on Youth Violence in the Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology.  as well as his 1993 Paper on youth violence.

We also know that violence prevention programs can and do work. Over the past two decades, rigorous evaluation research studies have demonstrated that some programs work very well indeed. Furthermore, they work at all three levels of prevention: universal (for the entire target population), selective (for those in the target population who are at some level of risk for engaging in violent behavior), and indicated (for those within the population that have engaged in violent behavior: see the Blueprints Programs from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence for examples of evidence-based programs.

We also know, through studies that have looked simultaneously at multiple evaluations of violence prevention programs (meta-analyses) that certain components of programs systemically contribute to their success.  For example, we know that the duration of the program must be proportional to the severity of problems addressed and the extent to which the target population is involved in serious violence, we know that certain kinds of programs do not work (e.g., boot camps, scared straight approaches), and we know that programs that work at multiple levels (individual, family, community) are needed for youth who are more entrenched in violent behavior.  See the report prepared for the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform as an innovative and data-driven delineation of such program components and how they are extracted.

Tidbits from experience:

  • Home visits with youth illuminate the young person’s life circumstances far more vividly than numerous office visits.
  • Warm, supportive, and non-judgmental relationships between staff and youth are critically important. However, remember that trusts take time to build and that it is gradually established. This is particularly true for youth who have been regularly disappointed by those who said they would help and then but disappeared when the going got tough or a project ended. Moreover, most youth who have become involved in anti-social activities have been told over and over about what they have done wrong without mention of what they have done well.
  • Youth know much more about their world than you do:  learn from them to get to know them.
  • Many youth are constantly exposed to violence:  creating a safe program space, one that is youth-friendly and youth-designed, is critically important.
  • Focus on the youth’s interests and talents rather than their deficits (see tab on “Positive Youth Development”).
  • All of us need ways to establish status and recognition.  Provide such opportunities for youth, i.e., don’t let violence be their only source of status and power (juice).
  • Group projects that are inspired and designed by young people are important in teaching in-vitro conflict resolution, communication, and work skills.
  • Violating street codes can be deadly:  learning how young people navigate in their world reveals an impressive array of very smart survival skills.  Our job is to help young people learn to use these skills in productive and positive ways.  Do not assume that informal verbal and non-verbal rules that guide middle-class behavior will work on the street.