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Why do young people murder?

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Updated November 06, 2005

Why do young people murder?

Originally written May, 1999

Increasingly in recent years Americans and others around the world have tried to make sense of a senseless mass murder. When the victims and perpetrators are teenagers the act is even harder to comprehend. Why would high school students murder their classmates and teachers? What do such events say about our society?

Even before the April 1999 events at Columbine High School the American Psychological Association (APA) and MTV had joined forces to develop a campaign to stop youth violence. The APA Website includes materials developed from this campaign. Drawing from this material and other sources I have put together some factors that I believe contribute to the current climate of violence.

  • The easy availability of guns in the U.S.  - The United States has some of the most liberal gun laws in the world. While events like this have happened in other countries, only in America are the weapons easily available in quantity.
  • The availability of information on explosives on the Internet  - The Internet allows information to come into our living rooms that was once very difficult to obtain. We have always been able to go to the library and find some of this material. Today volumes of it is available in your home at the touch of a button. Some of the Online material is more detailed than anything you'd find at the library.
  • The breakdown of the nuclear family - Rising divorce rates and the blending of families make it more difficult for children to have good role models for conflict resolution.  Children learn from what they see, not what they hear.
  • Violence on television and in movies - How many murders have you witnessed this week? If you've watched more than a few hours of television you have probably seen several. Violence adds excitement and increases ratings, but it also demonstrates behaviors that teenagers like to imitate.
  • The absence of a moral compass - In past generations the church and synagogue were important influences on children and youth.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts included moral values at the core of their teaching.  While these influences are still here, they are not a part of the lives of many teens.
  • Women joining men in the workforce - With both parents working in most families children have a much greater amount of unsupervised time than in the past. While most latchkey teenagers do not build bombs, decreased parental involvement and supervision is one thing that allows things like this to happen.
  • The breakdown of neighborhoods and communities - When I grew up we knew almost everyone on our street. It seemed like there was much more time for leisure activities and socializing. Today I know some of my neighbors, and I wave to others that I don't know. Then I retreat to my own house and yard to relax and unwind. Teenagers who feel connected with others in their community are less likely to act out their anger in destructive ways.
  • The natural tendency for teens to form groups and cliques - Most of us remember the pecking order in high school, and Columbine High School sounds typical. The jocks were popular because of their celebrity on the playing field, and some students were teased for being on the fringe. The "outcast" teens of my day were the nerds in the audiovisual club and the students who dressed funny and did drugs. There was racial tension in my high school, but the tension between the different groups rarely erupted into violence. When it did fists were the weapon of choice.
  • Healthy teen rebellion getting out of hand - One of the developmental tasks of the teenage years is to become your own person, partly through rebellion against your parents.   As a parent it is often difficult to know when this rebellion is normal and when it has gotten out-of-hand.  Keep the lines of communication open with your teenager.  Consider family therapy if communication stops entirely during this period.

What can be done?  Obviously some of these factors are easier to influence than others.   Most families with two incomes need both of those incomes.  Teens will always form cliques and they will always rebel.  One of the most important things that you, as a parent, can do is to talk with your teenager.  Avoid lecturing, and be sure to listen to them at least as much as you talk.  Younger children should be encouraged to be involved in organizations which aim to develop a sense of right and wrong.  Avoid leaving children or teens unsupervised for long periods of time every day.  Supervise their Internet access and continue to involve them in family activities and family vacations.

Other solutions may take more than just parents.  Communities can increase their offerings of recreational activities. Empty school buildings can be used to offer evening and weekend events.  Churches can re-think their youth programs and offer activities which are interesting and meaningful to teenagers.

Last updated 11/5/05

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