Introduction

More than a half-century ago, psychology brought the study of violence and human aggression into the realm of science. The Commission on Violence and Youth of the American Psychological Association (APA) was empaneled in July 1991 to bring the body of knowledge generated during the last 5 decades to bear on the troubling national problem of violence involving youth.

Psychology’s message is one of hope. The Commission overwhelmingly concluded, on the basis of the body of psychological research on violence, that violence is not a random, uncontrollable, or inevitable occurrence. Many factors, both individual and social, contribute to an individual’s propensity to use violence, and many of these factors are within our power to change. Although we acknowledge that the problem of violence involving youth is staggering and that there are complex macrosocial, biomedical, and other considerations that must be addressed in a comprehensive response to the problem, there is overwhelming evidence that we can intervene effectively in the lives of young people to reduce or prevent their involvement in violence.

Preventing Violence Begins Early

Laying the groundwork for preventing violence begins early in a child’s development. In their early years, children learn fundamental ways of dealing with social conflict. Everyone who comes into contact with the child — parents, educators, childcare providers, healthcare providers — has the potential to contribute to a child’s attitudes toward violence and propensity toward violent behavior. Similarly, every institution that touches children’s family, schools, mass media, community and religious organizations — can contribute positively to children’s sense of safety and to their preference for alternatives to violence.

Children who begin to show aggressive behavior early require prompt intervention. The greatest predictor of future violent behavior is a previous history of violence. Without systematic and effective intervention, early aggression commonly will escalate into later violence and broaden into other antisocial behavior.

Social forces such as prejudice, economic inequality, and attitudes toward violence in the mainstream American culture interact with the influences of early childhood to foster the expression of violence. Not everyone affected by these forces, however, turns to violence. In some cases, for example, forces within the child’s ethnic culture may serve as a buffer against adverse social circumstances. Culture builds identity, sets norms for behavior, and provides a sense of group cohesion that is vital to a child’s growth and development. A promising area for intervention efforts is in identifying and strengthening the protective factors that keep the vast majority of youth from turning to violence as a response to social conditions.

When children and youth come in contact with certain social experiences, their risk of involvement with violence increases. These experiences include: access to firearms; involvement with alcohol and other drugs; involvement in antisocial groups, including delinquent gangs and violent mobs; and exposure to violence in the mass media. It is important to stress, however, that no specific social experience inevitably leads to violence. The degree of risk is strongly influenced by what the child or youth previously learned about violence and aggression. A youth is far more likely to carry or use a gun, for example, if he or she already has exhibited a propensity to use violence in other circumstances.

Children and youth who are victims of violence or who live with the chronic presence of violence in their communities require interventions to decrease their risk of future victimization and of future involvement in violence as a perpetrator. Except for hate crimes, it is the condition of social and economic inequality in which many ethnic minority youth live — and not their ethnicity — that places them at increased risk for becoming victims of violence. Certain groups of children and youth — notably girls and young women, gay and lesbian youth, and children and adolescents with disabilities — are placed at special risk not by any inherent factor related to their status, but by the biases, discriminatory behaviors, and inequalities of power in the society around them.

Recommendations

On the basis of these psychological perspectives, the Commission recommended a variety of specific efforts in the following areas:

  • Early childhood interventions directed toward parents, childcare providers and healthcare providers to help build the critical foundation of attitudes, knowledge, and behavior related to aggression.

  • School-based interventions to help schools provide a safe environment and effective programs to prevent violence.

  • Heightened awareness of cultural diversity and involvement of members of the community in planning, implementing and evaluating intervention efforts.

  • Development of the mass media’s potential to be part of the solution to violence, not just a contributor to the problem.

  • Limiting access to firearms by children and youth and teaching them how to prevent firearm violence.

  • Reduction of youth involvement with alcohol and other drugs, known to be contributing factors to violence by youth and to family violence directed at youth.

  • Psychological health services for young perpetrators, victims and witnesses of violence to avert the trajectory toward later involvement in more serious violence.

  • Education programs to reduce prejudice and hostility, which are factors that lead to hate crimes and violence against social groups.

  • Efforts to strengthen the ability of police and community leaders to prevent mob violence by early and appropriate intervention.

  • Efforts by psychologists acting as individuals and through professional organizations to reduce violence among youth.

Not all of these remedies are expensive. Even those that require considerable investment of resources are far less costly — in dollars and in human capital — than the alternative of letting violence continue to ravage our children and our communities. Even if we cannot do it all, it is important to make a beginning at once. Every step we take, guided by the findings of scientific research, will make a difference in young lives and in the quality of life for all people.

Commission Members and Authors

Members
Leonard D. Eron, PhD, Chair
Judith V. Becker, PhD
S. Andrew Chen, PhD
Lawrence J. Dark, JD
Edward Donnerstein, PhD
Eva L. Feindler, PhD
Isaac Fulwood, Jr.
Arnold P. Goldstein, PhD
W. Rodney Hammond, PhD
Hope M. Hill, PhD
Ronald G. Slaby, PhD
Fernando I. Soriano, PhD

Contributing Authors
Leonard Berkowitz, PhD
Patricia Bowie, MPH
Nancy G. Guerra, EdD
Alan E. Kazdin, PhD
Vasilios K. Lagos, PsyD
Judith C. Levey, PhD
Debra J. Pepler, PhD
Lori H. Rosenthal
Susan B. Sorenson, PhD
Ervin Staub, PhD
Patrick Tolan, PhD
Reiko Homma True, PhD
Betty R. Yung, PhD

APA Commission Staff
Jacquelyn Gentry, PhD
Claudia L. Menashe
Henry Tomes, PhD

Cooperating APA Staff
James M. Jones, PhD
Pat Kobor
Debra Trimiew
Brian Wilcox, PhD

Consultants
Joyce Barham
Lynne M. Constantine
Community Scribes
Suzanne Scott
Ellen Scrivner, PhD