Adolescent Violence Prevention Page

by Peter Stringham MD



Theory and Teenager who Can Handle Himself Well

How to Solve Conflicts without Violence

Bullying, Peers, Gangs, Personal Safety and Dating Violence

Guns, Drugs, Alcohol, and Self Injury

What to do after a fight. Respect anger and feeling enjoyment.



Theory and Teenager who Can Handle Himself Well

Parents rightly worry that their children may become victims of violence. Parents want their children to safe from crime. Teenagers want the same for themselves. No one ever knowingly chooses to become a victim of violence from dates, friends or acquaintances. Teenagers experience more than double the rates of violence compared to the total population.

A 1993 Bureau of Justice survey of 100,000 people found that for 1000 teenagers between 12 yr. and 20 yr., 6 were raped or sexually assaulted, 13 were robbed, and 100 were assaulted (27 were assaulted with weapons). For the entire population the rate per 1000 was 2 rapes or sexual assaults, 6 personal robberies, and 43 assaults (12  with weapons.) Teenagers between 12 and 15 had the highest rates of assault of any group at 103 per 1000 or ONE in TEN. Teenagers want to be safe they do not want to become victims of violence from dates, friends or acquaintances.

Life time risk for being murdered for United States Citizen (1985)  

 White female: 1 in 450  
 Nonwhite female: 1 in 164  
 White male: 1 in 117   
 Non white male: 1 in 28  

For 15-24 year old males in the US, murder is the leading cause of death

Violence is not just a city problem. Rural and suburban citizens experience a rate of victimization that is only about 1/3 lower than the urban rate. These rates of violence are unacceptably high, so this guide is designed to help you understand teenage violence better and give you ideas so that you can talk with teenagers about risks they may face so that they have less chance of becoming a victim of violence.

Violence from strangers is a worry, but most injuries from violence occur between people who know each other--usually in a fight that is caused by an argument. This  booklet will give you some guidelines to help protect teenagers and will help them handle potentially violent conflicts with dates, friends and acquaintances.

Things are different for today’s teenagers compared to a generation ago. First this generation has grown up with a heavy exposure to media violence which tells children every Saturday morning that "if you are a reasonable person, you  must use violence if you are dealing with someone who is threatening to hurt you in any way. Reason and compromise never work. You can only be safe and protect your friends if you are violent."

 Secondly teenagers are exposed to many more guns. An angry fight that would be a fist fight for an earlier generation can become deadly if one of the participants has a gun. Teenagers will still get angry and may fight if they are harassed, bullied, feel disrespected, are called names or feel they must defend their friends. The media’s message that "fighting is the best way to solve conflict" will set someone up for disaster if that means a teenager will fight with any gun-carrying 14 year old who swears at him, taunts him and talks about his mother. I work in a pretty safe good community, East Boston, and I have met one  14 year old and several fifteen year olds who sometimes carry guns. I must emphasize  gun carrying is not common, but anyone who advises a teenager that he should "finish" any fight that someone else starts is setting up that teenager for possible injury or worse.

Violence prevention specialists do not advocate that children become passive victims. We do not advocate avoiding conflict, nor do we want cowardly behavior. We hope teenagers will become active people who solve conflict non violently.

Parents need to let their children become independent. Teenagers need to go out and explore the world. Parents’ challenge is to let their children go out into the world, help them find environments that are safe, and at the same time help them practice non violent conflict solving skills before they are in a dangerous conflict.

The old lesson from parents to children--"Don’t start any fights, but be sure you finish them."-- will make a child more likely to be injured in the modern world where more and more teenagers are willing to fight and more and more carry handguns.

A newer lesson can be "I don’t want you fighting with anyone ever. As a young person you have to be able to assess every conflict carefully, handle your own anger well, keep yourself calm and try to communicate with the best part or decent side of the person who is trying to fight with you. If a person really wants to fight and is making you angry, it can take a lot of personal courage to walk away. It is easy to fight; it often takes a bigger person to walk away from a fight."




Violence does not need to happen. Simply by watching television, children learn how to solve problems using violence. But by watching parents, teachers, and other community people they can learn how to solve problems non violently. Communities can help teenagers learn about getting along with people, keeping themselves cool headed despite beginning to feel angry, and how to communicate better with the decent side of people who are trying to fight them.

Each person continually reflects on his life experiences and makes individual decisions that shape his beliefs about the world and how he should best act in it. The life experiences that increase the chances of making a violent teenager are experiencing child abuse, witnessing a mother being beaten, being told by relatives to "always fight", abusing alcohol, using cocaine, ‘angel dust’ or anabolic steroids, and weapon carrying. Some people have few of these ‘violent making’ life experiences and are violent; others have many of the ‘violent making’ life experiences and are non violent.

Most teenagers do not fight. Many of the non fighters are assertive, non violent, problem solving adolescents. They carefully assess conflicts and reach out to the decent side of people. They try to see the other person’s point of view and they give their own . They see ways to redefine the conflict so that both parties save face and are not pulled into fights. They resolve their own and others conflicts non violently.

Some teenagers do fight a lot. Very violent teenagers tend to believe that the world is a hostile and dangerous place filled with either victims or bullies. They don’t understand the concept of an assertive non violent human being. They believe that violence is the best way to solve most conflicts. They have few skills to resolve conflicts non violently. They don’t ask questions or seek compromises. They ‘hold it all in’ and then tend to explode and act impulsively when faced with a conflict. They see themselves as victims of circumstance and not really responsible for their actions--positive or negative.

These violent teenagers have sometimes labeled themselves macho. We need to take back the name macho as a definition for truly strong, good men.

        1.  He who is dignified

        2.  He who is protector

        3.  He who is responsible

        4.  He who is nurturing

        5.  He who is spiritual

        6.  He who is faithful

        7.  He who is respectful

        8.  He who is friendly

        9.  He who is caring

        10. He who is sensitive

        11. He who is trustful

        12. He who provides

(Reprinted from "Youth Today" 9/97 According to Los Compadres, Klein Bottle Youth Program in Santa Maria CA)

Teenagers are neither purely violent or purely non violent. Normally non violent teenagers can lose their heads, make an argument worse and wade into a fight. The overwhelming majority of very violent teenagers would want to solve conflicts non violently if they knew how. Adolescents can understand that if they use fighting to solve a problem at least 1/2 the time someone loses. If they use non violent problem solving more than half the time both sides can win.

Normal Development of Teenagers


Parents and counselors can help teenagers deal with violence better if they understand the normal need of teenagers to move toward forming a more adult relationship with their parents. All parents want their children to become assertive, kind, adults who are close to them. For the confident adult to emerge, a teenager will experiment with other ways of looking at the world so that they can feel they have explored all options before they choose their adult world view. For most parents they can feel confident that "the apple does not fall far from the tree." In other words most children end up becoming very much like their parents. Most have good relationships with their parents when they become adults. But lots of teenagers become better adults than their parents were.

Teenagers will want to break away from the family and form close friendships with other teenagers and other adults. Because they are not yet secure with their own world view they can temporarily take on the views and beliefs of other adults, teenagers or the teenage culture. Teenagers like to belong to groups of kids. They can join healthy groups, supervised by healthy adults, or unhealthy groups that we sometimes call gangs.

 Parents don’t need to like every belief teenagers claim as their own. Children of serious Democrats can extol conservative rhetoric, and policemen’s children can espouse ‘gangstah rap.’ Teenagers wear the teenage ‘uniform.’ Teenagers like their independent ideas and styles, but like to be protected also. It is a parent’s job to tolerate the free wheeling and changing ideas and dreams. It is also their job and the job of the adults who are around teenagers to set limits with their behavior, so that their normal experimentation does not lead to life long consequences.

Dyed hair is of little long term consequence, but teenage sex without condoms can cause AIDS or pregnancy. Experimentation with cocaine can cause instant death or addiction., joining a criminal gang or handling a loaded gun can cause death. Young teenagers need to know the difference between relatively safe experimentation and safe risk taking and unsafe experimentation and risky behavior that is a danger to their life. Teenagers want to feel and be powerful and successful in the world. They need to know that they need not be passive victims. They need not be cowardly. They can be assertive, non violent individuals who solve problems well.  

For any parents who are reading this you can know that despite their need to interact with the outside world adolescents still need and want their parents’ emotional support and guidance. Concerning violence they want hear parents advice about how to act safely but courageously in the outside world. They may experiment in their minds with different ideas about violence but they want to remain connected to their parents. They want to how you would  handle street fighting, bullying, and coercive dating relationships. In the workplace most adults learn how to handle bullying and people who want to fight in a coolheaded manner. Teenagers want those skills for their own world.

Model of a Teen Who Can Handle Himself


Think about when you were in third grade.

a. In it some kids were frequently bullies—they liked to fight with other kids.  

b.  Some kids were instigators—they liked to push other people into fights but they didn’t necessarily fight that much.  

c.  Some kids were victims—they got picked on a lot.  

 (the first three groups traded roles sometimes. The victims became bullies. The bullies became instigators. The instigators became victims. )  

c.  Some kids faded away whenever a conflict arose.  
d.  And some kids were able to resolve conflicts and rarely fought.  
    The kids in the last category were probably the best liked kids in your class  

Think about being in high school.

Chances are the bullies, victims, instigators, problem avoiders and problem resolvers approached conflicts the same way they did in third grade. Fortunately anyone can learn how to be more like a problem resolver.

Adults call them safe "assertive teenagers".

When confronted with all the risks that teenagers face--alcohol, drugs, driving, sex and violence, parents will be most confident about their children if they know they are safe assertive teenagers. These are adolescents who respect themselves and everyone they meet. They have an attitude that they are high value human beings and that everyone they meet are high value human beings also.

Rural, urban and suburban neighborhoods have many young men and women who are safe assertive teenagers. They are alert but not anxious, cautious but not scared. They can frequently listen to someone who is angry without getting frightened or angry themselves. They keep themselves calm and keep thinking clearly under stress. Their decisions are usually sensible. Our communities would be a lot safer if we had more people in them like them.

Safe assertive teenagers are neither victims or bullies. When confronted with conflict they keep themselves calm, understand that the aggressors are upset, understand that the aggressors are trying to fight to solve conflicts. They may try to get away if the aggressor seems dangerous or unable to listen, but often they talk to aggressors, treating them decently and trying to connect with and communicate with the decent side of the aggressors. In their words and actions they give and get "respect."

They take their friends with them and walk away from a conflict that seems to be getting out of control. They know that sometimes it takes a lot of courage to avoid violence and allow some insults or even to allow yourself to be robbed rather than risk the health and safety of yourself or a friend. They know their own injury will cause enormous pain to family and friends, so they keep themselves safe.