Keeping Your Children Safe:
Communication Skills & Tools To Prevent Youth Violence
By Alvin F. Poussaint, MD
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, murders of juveniles increased by 82%, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention with murders of juveniles by firearms nearly tripling.
Homicide is now the second leading cause of death for persons aged 15-24, and the violent rampages that appear nightly on television raise momentous questions: What causes youth violence? More important, what can we do to prevent it?
The causes of violence, and the question of why the United States has so many violent young people, are issues that are too complex to explore in detail here. But it's important to keep in mind that the primary stimulus for violent behavior is uncontrollable anger, and in 1997 a Harvard survey of junior and senior high school students found that
33% of the students surveyed agreed with the statement "When I am really angry, there is no way I can control myself."
Often, people whose anger erupts in violence are unable to talk about their feelings and lack the skills to resolve interpersonal conflicts peaceably. Such deficits may leave them especially vulnerable to media messages that encourage using violence to settle disagreements. It's not surprising that 41% of respondents in the Harvard survey agreed with the statement "If I am challenged, I am going to fight."
There are no simple answers to our national epidemic. But data suggest that effective communication within families is one of the keys to preventing youth violence. Parents need to talk with their children about the destructiveness of violence, teach right from wrong, and explore alternatives to violence. Discussing the past year's shootings in Washington, DC or Columbine, for example, could create opportunities for parent-child dialogues about productive ways of managing anger and preventing violence from erupting.
Communication between parents and children strengthens family bonds and is crucial to helping children understand and cope with their frustrations. But when children become teenagers, there is less willingness on their part to open up to their parents. At around age 13 they begin to pull back, become more independent, and talk less, creating a communications gap that can cause parents to feel frustrated, especially parents who find it uncomfortable to talk to their children about family conflicts. Yet parents need to know what's going on with their children, and they need to make sure their children know that they are always available to talk to. Where youth violence is concerned, the effectiveness of a parent's communication skills can mean the difference between life and death.
In a recent Yankelovich survey sponsored by BellSouth, almost all parents said they believe good communication is important, and 26% said they are currently looking for ways to improve communication. Finding new ways to increase the effectiveness of family communication is especially crucial today, when being able to spend time together has become an infrequent luxury for too many families. The Yankelovich survey revealed that 50% of parents who want to be in better communication with their children are away from them for at least 30 hours every week. And according to the US Census Bureau, 62% of mothers with children under age 6 now work outside the home--double the 1970 percentage. Whether one parent should or should not stay at home is not the issue. The point is that parents and caregivers need to achieve a balance between their professional lives and their home lives that supports effective child rearing, and a major part of child rearing is communication.
Effective communication between parents and children depends in part on parents' interpersonal skills. But it also depends on the ability of both simply to stay in touch with each other. And as new technology opens up additional modes of communication, today's parents can stay in touch with their children in ways they couldn't have imagined 25 years ago, when parents who were temporarily away from their children could talk to them only over traditional telephones. Now pagers, cell phones, and e-mail let parents keep track of their children conveniently while enhancing everyone's feelings of safety and security.
When kids are away from home--at the playground, at the mall, at the library--the nearest pay phone may be out of commission, making it difficult for them to get in touch with their parents in an emergency. Many parents, understandably, are opting to supply even young children with cell phones as soon as they are capable of dialing a number. And three quarters of the Yankelovich survey respondents who wanted to be in better communication with their children said they thought pagers or cell phones would help them achieve their goal.
From my own personal experience with a son in college, I can say that not only does he carry a cell phone with an answering service so that I can keep in touch with him, he also sends me frequent e-mail messages to read and respond to something he never did in high school. And I know of many families who communicate primarily through e-mail with children who are away at school or in college.
Clearly technology is opening up the way people communicate and becoming an important tool for helping to keep families together even when they're separated physically. As parents, we need to make use of new telecommunications technology as it evolves. And we need to remember that communication is an ongoing process that requires our continued attention. Like parenting, it's also a process we must attend to as a nation if we are to address the problem of youth violence effectively.
Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, serves as Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Harvard Medical School, where he sits on the Board of Harvard's AIDS Institute. He is one of the country's top authorities on nonviolent parenting education. He is an esteemed author, psychiatrist, educator, and respected social critic.
1. FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-1997. A data dissemination and analytic software package developed for the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by the Nation Center for Juvenile Justice.
2. Anderson RN, Kochanek KD, Murphy SL. Report of final mortality statistics, 1995. Monthly vital statistics report 45, 11(2 Suppl) 1997.
3. Greene JP, Buka SL, Gortmaker, SL et al. Youth Violence: The Harvard-MetLife Survey of Junior and Senior High School Students 1997.
4. "Squash It!" Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence, Center for Health Communications, Harvard School of Public Health, October 1998.
5. Parent Talk survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners, sponsored by BellSouth, 2000.
6. U.S. Census Bureau. Presence and Age of Children by Employment Status of Parents. 1998 American Community Survey Percent Change Summary Tables.
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